This is one of those historic days not just for the Parliament but for Scotland as a whole. The past years have seen a massive change in the perception of same-sex couples. It has been legal for some years now to be openly gay, whereas in previous generations people were at risk of persecution and conviction. Gay people can now serve openly in the armed forces and, of course, we are proud of all who are brave enough to do so to keep us safe at home. Same-sex couples can now adopt and have the joy and the responsibilities that that brings.
This is not just another bill. It is a reform that demonstrates that our Scottish society values everyone, whatever their sexuality and their relationships.
I will not argue that all Scotland or even all members of this Parliament think that we should allow same-sex marriage, but I think that Scotland is changing. In 2002, 41 per cent of the Scottish people agreed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, and just eight years later the proportion had risen to 61 per cent. The Equal Opportunities Committee’s call for evidence attracted 1,300 responses, and 75 per cent of respondents were positive about equal marriage—a clear majority. There is clearly growing support for equal marriage. If my bulging in-box is anything to go by, by far the majority are in favour of equal marriage. There is no unanimity of course, but there is a clear majority in favour.
It will not surprise members that Liberal Democrats will support the bill as it goes through the Parliament. Our constitution says:
“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
We made equal marriage our party policy in 2010. I think that we were the first major party to do so. We submitted a positive response to the consultation, in which we said that Scotland can prove to the world that it is one of the fairest and most equal places in which to live.
The progress that we have made, for example by allowing gay people to serve in the forces, makes it more difficult to accept that there should be any barrier to a religious body that is willing to do so marrying two people who have religious beliefs and who feel strongly enough to want to accord their relationship the sanctity of marriage.
I emphasise that the religious body must be willing. I know that there are concerns that religious bodies, whatever their denomination, might be forced on human rights grounds to marry people whom they do not want to marry, but I simply do not buy that. I am aware of churches that would not marry opposite-sex couples, for example because the couple were not regular attenders. I know of no case in which such a couple would take a church to court; they would simply go to a church that was happy enough to sanctify their relationship. I cannot envisage a same-sex couple having any joy in taking a religious body to court on human rights grounds. It is worth noting that the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission support the bill.
The bill makes clear that no religious body will be required to solemnise a same-sex marriage and that even if a religious body opts in, individual celebrants will be under no obligation to marry a same-sex couple. We believe in freedom of expression, which extends to religious bodies, whether they want to opt in or out of equal marriage.
I mentioned the Liberal Democrats’ support for liberty, fairness and equality and said that we will support the bill. It is worth noting work that is going on elsewhere in the UK. Under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, a previous conviction for a homosexual act can be deleted. There has been a change to allow gay men to give blood and there has been an end to deporting gay asylum seekers to countries that would torture them for being gay. The UK Government encourages sports organisations to sign up to its sports charter, which calls for an end to homophobia and transphobia. There is also the UK Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. I am sure that members—at least some of them, anyway—will applaud the positive difference that Liberal Democrats in coalition have made on equal rights for all.
I am proud to be a member of the Scottish Parliament while the bill is going through, albeit that we are not the first country in Europe to legislate for equal marriage. Westminster is ahead of us, and Belgium, France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Iceland have legislated, as have 16 of the 50 states of the United States of America. The bill’s progress today will prove that Scotland is a fairer and more equal country, in which we can all be proud to live.