Last September the Scottish Government published a consultation paper on marriage equality, proposing that same sex couple should have the right to marry. Now after ten months and almost 80,000 responses it has delayed a final decision on the matter.
Alex Salmond’s cabinet met yesterday and was expected to announce legislation to enact marriage equality in Scotland – ignoring opposition from the two biggest churches, among others. Instead it was announced that Nicola Sturgeon would lead a sub committee to look at some of the finer points of legislation.
But briefings from the government seem to indicate that it will go ahead with the plans. The delay is apparently around the opt out that will be given to religions who oppose same sex marriage to ensure that they could not be forced to perform ceremonies that they do not agree with. Some religious groups do back the change though, and it is thought that they will be allowed to perform marriage ceremonies for same sex couples.
Is this a case of the SNP Government backing away from a confrontation? It seems not and we are told to expect an announcement within a month. But it does appear strange that there remain loose ends after the issue has been under discussion for so long. Poor government rather than a policy u-turn seems to be the answer.
The Catholic Church in Scotland has led opposition to the proposals. Cardinal Keith O’Brien has called for a referendum on the matter, but this has been rejected by the government. O’Brien has already announced plans for a £100,000 fighting fund to head off a change in the law.
The Scottish Parliament will debate the issue in due course. But the SNP will give its MSPs a free vote, meaning that they can vote against their own party’s proposal. It is though that at least four ministers will oppose the bill – Fergus Ewing, Roseanna Cunningham, Michael Matheson and Alasdair Allan.
One SNP MSP who supports gay marriage told The Herald newspaper, “I’m confident it’s moving in the right direction. I think the decision has been taken in principle and the sub-committee is now crossing Ts and dotting Is.”
But former SNP leader Gordon Wilson last night urged his party to “ditch this absurd proposal”: He argued that political expedience should take precedence over principle. “For the SNP, independence must come before political correctness. Alienating a large section of the Scottish electorate on the eve of a historic referendum on independence makes little political sense.”
I hope that the cabinet does go ahead with its proposed bill. Following a consultation and a seven month period of analysis it should really have been ready to take a final decision, and it is to be hoped that the establishment of a further group to discuss the matter is not just a delaying tactic.
Equal rights for same sex couples is an important principle – and one that should not be caught up in political calculations about its impact on a future referendum.