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Marriage put on an equal footing

Already, plans are being made.

Venues are being inspected, menus drafted and guest lists drawn up, all in preparation for Scotland's first ever gay marriage ceremonies, which are set to take place in a matter of months.

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill has been one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in the current parliament, attracting three times the number of submissions at consultation stage as that on the independence referendum but, when MSPs voted yesterday to give same sex couples the right to marry, it was one of Holyrood's finest hours. MSPs declined to bow to the highly organised lobby that opposed gay marriage in any form, instead approving a sensible compromise position under which the right of homosexual couples to be married has been balanced with freedom of conscience for religious groups.

It has been clear for some time that the creation of civil partnerships, a separate class of legal union for gay couples, has inadvertently made gay men and lesbians feel that they are still discriminated against. Scotland could not claim to be a progressive nation built on the principles of equality and freedom while denying marriage equality and now that anomaly has been swept away.

This law is for couples like Nathan and Robert Gale, from Leith, who are tired of having to explain what a civil partnership means and just want to be able to tell people they are married. It is for same-sex couples with a religious faith who have suffered the pain of being legally debarred from having their commitment recognised in a religious setting. It is difficult to square this with the practice of heterosexual couples who choose to marry in church even if they have not set foot in one for years.

In short, it ensures that marriage will be an option for any couple, gay or straight, who wish to make a public commitment that is recognised in law.

Crucially, religious groups will not be compelled to perform gay marriages and even if they are in favour of doing so, individual celebrants with a personal objection will be free to opt out. This is fair and respectful towards churches and other religious groups for whom marriage is defined as a heterosexual union.

Importantly, however, it also ensures that religious groups who object to gay marriage may not prevent others from performing them. The Humanist Society has pointed out that there is no such legal protection in reverse for an individual celebrant who wishes to perform a gay marriage ceremony against the wishes of their faith group as a whole, and some ministers and other celebrants will almost certainly feel constrained by this lack of an "opt-in". But that is ultimately a matter for them and their church.

Some critics have voiced concerns that religious groups could be forced to perform gay marriages under European human rights laws, but that seems highly unlikely. The views of those who oppose this measure must not be discounted but MSPs and ministers have done what is right in voting through this long-awaited bill, and should be commended for doing so.

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Weddings

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