GAY rights campaigners were today celebrating Scotland becoming the first part of the UK to unveil legislation for same-sex marriage.
But the Scottish Government’s draft Bill, which is now out for consultation, will require churches to “opt in” if they want to offer religious weddings to gay couples, making it difficult for liberal-minded ministers within the main denominations to carry out such ceremonies.
The Church of Scotland, the Catholic Church and the Scottish Episcopal Church are all officially opposed to same-sex marriage, although there are individual ministers and priests who would be happy to conduct gay weddings.
The government said the legislation included “important protections” for religious bodies and celebrants. But the churches remained critical of the move.
The Rev Alan Hamilton, convener of the Church of Scotland’s legal questions committee, said: “Unless our General Assembly decides otherwise, we cannot support the government’s proposals.
“We have also expressed concerns about the speed with which the government is proceeding with this and what we fear will be inadequate safeguards for religious bodies and ministers.”
Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said: “In order not to discriminate unjustly, more safeguards need to be embedded in the proposed legislation.”
Health Secretary Alex Neil said: “We are striving to create a Scotland that is free, tolerant and fair. I am absolutely clear that this should not impact on religious freedom and no religious body will be compelled to solemnise same-sex marriages.
“Where a body does decide to solemnise same-sex marriages, we will also protect individual celebrants who consider such ceremonies to be contrary to their faith.”
The proposed legislation says religious bodies who decide to opt in to gay marriages must either declare that all celebrants are willing to conduct ceremonies or authorise designated celebrants to do so.
The Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, a leading Episcopalian who supports gay marriage, suggested a group of churchmen and women could set themselves up and apply for recognition for conducting weddings.
He said: “It would be entirely possible that a Christian group which was not a church could be established with celebrants drawn from existing denominations authorised to do same-sex weddings.”
Edinburgh Southern SNP MSP Jim Eadie said he had argued in his submission to the earlier consultation on the issue that ministers who wanted to conduct same-sex weddings should be allowed to do so even if their denomination did not support gay marriage.
He said: “I would still be hopeful that the Church of Scotland would allow individual ministers to make that decision for themselves.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “It is for individual denominations to decide if they want to opt in. A number of bodies – including humanists, who currently carry out around 2500 weddings a year – have said that they wish to solemnise same-sex marriages.”