Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 20th November 2013.

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Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I apologise for not noticing earlier that we were running slightly ahead of schedule.

As is becoming clear to everyone, the bill that we are debating is different from the bills about which we debate policy or the intricacies of law. Speaking personally, as Ruth Davidson did, I can only feel that the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill is much more immediate and more fundamental, and that it deals with the question of my civil rights. After consideration, I concluded that my remarks, too, ought to reflect that.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone that, when I was young and my classmates started to notice girls, I started to notice boys. I was afraid. I looked at our society and I did not see myself looking back, whether in our institutions, such as marriage, in what was regarded in public debate at the time as good and moral, or even in how our society portrayed itself in fiction, in which any representation of same-sex attraction made the subject matter adult, to be ranked alongside pornography and violence. When all that I saw or knew of gay people was Julian Clary, Kenneth Williams or Graham Norton, I—a boy from a chip shop in Dunbartonshire—did not see myself. I could only conclude that I was different from normal and that what I was was less deserving as a result.

Today, this chamber can add a new tile to the great interlocking mosaic of our society that has been built up steadily, one piece at a time, since the Wolfenden report of 1957. Same-sex marriage will not be the last piece to be added to that mosaic. The bill is not the finished article, not least for the transgendered, but today we can further build a picture of our society that generations of young people to come can look at and see themselves in. People of faith, whether gay or straight, must see themselves in that image, too, because it would be perverse to expand the freedom to express sexuality only at the cost of the freedom to practise faith. Both are fundamental cornerstones of a humane society, and the dichotomy between them is a false one.

Amending UK equality laws puts beyond doubt any concern that churches could be forced to hold same-sex marriages by domestic law. Anyone can speculate about hypothetical European challenges, but the ECHR includes specific protection for freedom of religious practice. I quote:

“There would ... be a quite a hurdle and a strong protection under article 9 if churches can prove that they are not part of the state.”

The Church of Scotland is not and has never been a department of the state”.—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 19 September 2013; c 1495, 1494.]

Those are not my words, but those of Aidan O’Neill QC, when, as legal adviser to the campaign against the bill, he gave evidence to the Equal Opportunities Committee. If the Kirk is not classed as a department of state, which faith would be? The Equality and Human Rights Commission and Karon Monaghan, who is a human rights law specialist, formed part of the consensus that the protections were strong and that the freedom of religion was genuine.

However, we do not have to speculate. Nine countries in Europe have already legalised same-sex marriage and not one has seen churches being forced to hold such marriages. That fact was confirmed to the Equal Opportunities Committee not once, not twice, but three times over by different witnesses.

Above all, we must not be drawn by the remote and hypothetical challenge to religious freedom to such an extent that we overlook the very tangible, very real and very much on-going violation of personal freedom that is the exclusion of people of same-sex attraction from expressing their love through marriage, which is the institution that our society considers to be the paragon of commitment.

Civil partnerships were a welcome step, but they remind me of the ladies degrees that were offered before women were admitted to Scotland’s universities on an equal footing for the first time in 1892. Those degrees were progressive for their time—they opened the door—but who today would argue that a women-only degree was a substitute for allowing women to study on the same terms as men? Civil partnerships are “separate but equal”, which is always separate and never equal. They are not enough.

If we were to surprise everyone and to vote down the bill today, who would we be to continue to infringe the freedom of those progressive faiths such as Scotland’s Quakers and Scotland’s Unitarians that sincerely consider same-sex ceremonies to be part of their understanding of what marriage is and should be?

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