Scotland's government has announced plans to legalize same-sex marriages. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Deputy First Minister, said Wednesday that legislation permitting the marriages would soon be introduced but said it will include “important protections” for clergymen, teachers and parents who oppose the move.
Ministers confirmed they would bring forward a bill on the issue, indicating the earliest ceremonies could take place by the start of 2015.
Political leaders, equality groups and gay rights campaigners welcomed the move.
But it has been strongly opposed by the Catholic Church and Church of Scotland.
The announcement was made in the wake of a government consultation which produced a record 77,508 responses.
Same-sex couples in Scotland currently have the option to enter into civil partnerships and the Holyrood government has insisted no part of the religious community would be forced to hold same-sex weddings in churches.
The Scottish government said;
- it would work with UK ministers to amend equality laws, to ensure those views were safeguarded and protect celebrants from legal or disciplinary action if they refuse to take part or speak out against same-sex ceremonies.
- and a bill would be brought forward to the Scottish Parliament to bring in the change.
Scotland's deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said: "We are committed to a Scotland that is fair and equal and that is why we intend to proceed with plans to allow same-sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships - we believe that this is the right thing to do.
"We are also mindful of the fact that the leaders of all of the other parties represented in parliament support same sex-marriage and that there is significant parliamentary support for legislation."
She went on: "The Scottish government has already made clear that no religious body will be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages and we reiterate that today. Such protection is provided for under existing equality laws.
"However, our view is that to give certainty on protection for individual celebrants taking a different view from a religious body that does agree to conduct same-sex marriages, an amendment will be required to the UK Equality Act."
The Scottish government said it was now going ahead with another consultation to consider what extra measures are needed to guarantee freedom of speech, including the protection of religious beliefs of teachers and parents in schools.
There will also be a consultation on the bill itself, to be published later this year.
Ministers said the Scottish Catholic Education Service would continue to decide on the faith content of the curriculum in Catholic denominational schools.
Tom French, policy co-ordinator for the Equality Network, said: "The Scottish government have shown their determination to make Scotland a more progressive country.
"With cross-party support for equality in the Scottish Parliament, we would expect that this change can be passed next year."
Mr French added: "Same-sex marriage is about equality and freedom - the freedom for couples, and religious and humanist groups that want to, to celebrate same-sex marriages, but equally, upholding the freedom of other religious groups to say no to same-sex marriages.
"That's the right way for Scotland to deal with the different opinions on this."
The Church of Scotland, which will report on its own investigation of the issue in May 2013, expressed concern the government was rushing ahead with its plans.
The Rev Alan Hamilton, convener of the Church of Scotland legal questions committee, said: "We are acutely aware that opinions differ among our own members and that many people are anxious and hurt in the current situation.
"We believe homophobia to be sinful and we reaffirm our strong pastoral commitment to all people in Scotland, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs."
He added: "We are concerned the government will legislate without being able to effectively protect religious bodies or their ministers whose beliefs prevent them from celebrating civil-partnerships or same-sex marriages.
"The church's legal questions committee has re-iterated these concerns to the first minister - as yet, no satisfactory assurances have been received."
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: "The Scottish government is embarking on a dangerous social experiment on a massive scale.
"We strongly suspect that time will show the Church to have been completely correct in explaining that same-sex sexual relationships are detrimental to any love expressed within profound friendships."
Despite opposition by the big religions, faith groups, including members of the United Reformed Church, the Quakers, Buddhists and the Pagan Federation back gay marriage.British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday that he wanted to see gay marriage legalized throughout the UK by 2015.