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 Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

A week past on Saturday, as the constituency member for Coatbridge and Chryston I hosted the Conforti Institute’s intercultural dialogue conference here, which included delegates from home and abroad, gay, straight, Catholic, humanist, Protestant and pagan. They all recognised that we have to share this planet for the short time that we are here and that, while we may not all agree on issues such as same-sex marriage, we can surely disagree in a respectful fashion. Indeed, Alex Neil asked that the debate

“be conducted in a good spirit and civilised manner, with respect on all sides.”

Since I indicated that I did not intend to support the redefinition of marriage, my religion has been disparaged, I have been branded homophobic and bigoted, I have been likened to the Ku Klux Klan and it was suggested that I be burned at the stake as a witch.

The irony is that I spent 12 years serving on the Equal Opportunities Committee, when we removed section 2A, permitted same-sex adoption and introduced civil partnerships. No one accused me of homophobia then—indeed, quite the opposite.

Most of the people who have engaged with me on the issue are not homophobic. They have the sincerely held beliefs that marriage means one man and one woman as the social construct that forms the basis of family life and that, by altering that reality, the state will fundamentally affect our society with as yet unknown consequences.

Catholics and other Christians who believe that marriage is a sacrament cannot support the redefinition. Of the 77,000 respondents to the Government’s consultation, which is the biggest response ever, 67 per cent were against redefining it. Those people need a voice in the Parliament tonight.

As we have heard, amendments to the Equality Act 2010 will be sought to try to protect the clergy from legal action. That clearly recognises that court cases are likely, but those protections should be for everyone. Freedom of worship and freedom of religion are two different things, and both need to be protected. Section 14 of the bill could be amended to give wider protection, but I am not convinced that that would be unassailable. In evidence, Alex Neil said:

“Sometimes, it depends on the judge.”—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 3 October 2013; c 1597.]

Previously, we were given promises by ministers that they did not foresee unintended consequences of same-sex adoption and that Catholic adoption agencies specifically would be able to continue their work. I was in the chamber then and voted for the legislation on that basis. We now know that that is not the case, and the closure of agencies means that many children will suffer as a consequence.

The problem with the threat of legal challenges is that the churches cannot afford to fight them, even if they ultimately win. Both the Catholic church and the Church of Scotland have therefore stated that they may be forced to separate religious ceremonies from state ceremonies. The consequence of that would be that thousands of heterosexual couples would need to get married in a registry office and then seek a religious blessing so that a few same-sex couples would have the full ceremony in a church. Those who support the bill and think that it will have no impact on them and most of us who just want to live and let live need to understand that they may be directly affected.