Backed by all five party leaders, a same-sex marriage bill built on the evidence raised in the two lengthy consultations that evoked the largest public response in the history of devolution faces its first parliamentary test today.
Marriage is how our society recognises and celebrates the love and commitment of two people to each other. Excluding an entire category of people marks those people out as different, leading to stigma and the feeling of being second-class citizens.
Any interference by the state in an individual’s freedom to express their love for their partner needs a high justification – but so too their love for their deity.
This debate has been characterised as sexual orientation against religion far, far too often. The freedom to practise your faith freely evolved over centuries; the freedom to express sexuality, in the case of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered has evolved over decades. Both freedoms are equally fundamental cornerstones of a humane society.
Numerous recognised and long-established faiths, including Quakers, United Reformed Church, Unitarians, and at least one denomination of Judaism, have, after debate, reflection and prayer, come to consider same-sex marriage to be part of their religious understanding. They wish to hold these ceremonies and the current law prevents them from doing so.
These are minority faiths, but every faith in Scotland has been the minority at some point in history. Every faith holds views that differ from others.
Prominent voices for equal marriage also exist within the Church of Scotland, Episcopal Church and Methodist Church.
I fully expect more faiths will come to accept same-sex marriage within our lifetimes. The Humanist Society, whose celebrants now perform more marriages than any other organisation other than the Kirk, is also in favour. The Marriage & Civil Partnership Bill therefore goes to great lengths to devise a system that gives all religious organisations the freedom to decide whether or not to perform same-sex marriages – for the very first time.
Of course, this freedom for all would be undermined if organisations were forced to hold same-sex marriages by human rights challenges under the European Convention on Human Rights, as some have feared.
Article 9 of said convention, however, includes an express protection of freedom of religion. Amnesty International, which has a proud record of campaigning against the persecution of Christians across the Middle East and elsewhere, confirmed in the bill’s parliamentary examination that no such challenge had taken place anywhere that had legalised same-sex marriage.
All three eminent legal experts brought before the equal opportunities committee were also dismissive of the prospect of such a challenge succeeding. Crucially that included the QC who had been hired publicly as an adviser by the opponents of the bill. This is a rare independent legal consensus that the bill’s opponents must face up to and accept.
Today’s vote is therefore a chance to allow everyone to be true to their beliefs. The alternative is that the state chooses sides in a difference of religious opinion.
Voting down the bill would be to tell some faiths that they are not deserving of religious freedom. This needs high justification, and if that justification is that the bill’s opponents quietly believe that same-sex relationships are fundamentally immoral then they should say so. In doing so they would be out of step with the great majority of our society who believe in live and let live. Worst of all, without the bill the views of the opposed faiths would also be imposed upon those of no faith, who expect the state through civil marriage to reflect the legitimate choices of all of Scotland’s people.
The Scottish Parliament is poised today to back the same-sex marriage bill on a free vote by an overwhelming cross-party majority. That decision will make our nation more tolerant, equal and free.
• Marco Biagi is the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central and deputy convener of the Scottish Parliament’s equal opportunities committee, although he writes here in a personal capacity