The Scottish government have announced today (25 July) that they will push ahead with a bill to give legal recognition to same-sex marriage. Several faith groups have warmly welcomed the announcement, while others have criticised it.
Scottish ministers suggested that the earliest ceremonies could take place at the beginning of 2015. They have also pledged to allow religious elements in same-sex ceremonies, a move already ruled out for England and Wales.
Among Christian groups welcoming today's news in Scotland were the United Reformed Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. They were joined by the Movement for Reform Judaism, Liberal Judaism and Buddhist and Pagan groups.
Opponents of the plan include the leaders of the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland - both of which are Presbyterian - and the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Church of Scotland acknowledged that their own members are divided on the issue.
This is likely to mean that Scotland will be the first part of the UK to allow legal same-sex marriage, a development that could see same-sex couples from England, Wales and Northern Ireland travelling to Scotland to marry. The move puts increased pressure on UK Prime Minister David Cameron to live up to his commitment of legalising same-sex marriage in England and Wales.
Cameron has promised that the law will change by 2015, but he has been accused of dragging his feet on the issue in an attempt to appease many of his party's own MPs who oppose the plan. Several religious groups are unhappy that he has ruled out allowing them to conduct same-sex weddings, promising only civil ceremonies for same-sex couples.
"We are committed to a Scotland that is fair and equal," said Scotland's Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, today (25 July). "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."
Opponents of same-sex marriage have claimed that faith groups will be forced to carry out same-sex weddings when they do not believe in them, although none of the groups campaigning for marriage equality are calling for such an arrangement. Today, Sturgeon insisted that "the Scottish government has already made clear that no religious body will be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages and we reiterate that today."
She added, "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."
A statement from Scottish Unitarians said they were "proud" to have campaigned for the move alongside others.
They explained, "Unitarians in Scotland are delighted with the news that the Scottish government has today declared its support, and commitment, to introducing equal marriage legislation".
In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland accused the Scottish government of "embarking on a dangerous social experiment on a massive scale".
A spokesperson said, "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".
But the Church of Scotland appeared to take a softer line. Rev Alan Hamilton, convenor of the Church's 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."
However, despite Nicola Sturgeon's assurances, 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 Scottish government's decision was welcomed by the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.
"This is good news for the many people in Scotland, both religious and non-religious, who have campaigned for marriage equality," said Symon Hill, Ekklesia's associate director.
He added, "Many people will now be hoping that David Cameron and his colleagues will live up to their promise to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales. They could also show a commitment to religious liberty by allowing faith groups to celebrate same-sex marriages if they wish to do so, while respecting the rights of those that choose not to."
Ekklesia reiterated their call for a thorough overhaul of marriage law in response to the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society.
Hill said, "As with most questions involving sexuality and marriage, Christians and other faith groups have a range of views on this issue. It is vital that this controversy is not misrepresented as a conflict between the religious and the non-religious."