The latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey provides a timely record of views on same-sex marriage because the SNP Government’s manifesto for the Holyrood election in May included a pledge to consult on changing the legislation to allow homosexual and lesbian couples to marry.
Since 2005, homosexual and lesbian couples have been able to enter into civil partnerships throughout the UK. By providing the same legal rights as marriage, this overcame the discrimination against people in gay and lesbian relationships who had no automatic right to be nominated as next of kin or to inherit a deceased partner’s pension or property.
In Scotland well over 3000 civil partnerships have now been registered and it would appear the establishment of formally-recognised same-sex unions with legal standing has accelerated the process of acceptance. A poll conducted last year for the Scottish Green Party, for example, found 58% agreed that same sex couples should have the right to marry. This compared with the finding of the 2002 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in which only 41% said they agreed with same-sex marriage.
Nevertheless, civil partnerships are not officially termed marriages and cannot be conducted on religious premises or by religious celebrants. Both same-sex couples who want the legal status of marriage, or who specifically want recognition from their church or religious group, and heterosexual couples who would prefer a civil partnership, are frustrated at the continuing discrimination which outlaws both options.
It appeared that lobbying by the Equal Marriage Campaign had succeeded in gaining cross-party political backing throughout the UK. In Scotland, the SNP’s manifesto pledge followed a demand for a change in the law by a coalition of MSPs
A similar commitment had also been made by the Conservative Party in their manifesto for the General Election last year, resulting in an early announcement from the UK Coalition Government that they would consult on a change in the law in England and Wales. Governmental feet have since grown colder. The process, due to begin this summer, has yet to start, presumably due to genuine difficulty in accommodating the liberal demands of a largely secular society without alienating more conservative religious groups who believe their values are increasingly under threat. That dichotomy has been bought into the open at Holyrood with the motion tabled by the SNP MSP John Mason that no person or organisation should be forced to be involved in or to approve same-sex marriages.
In a society which values equality there can be no question of requiring any individual to act against their conscience or religious conviction. Neither, however, can there be acceptance of legally-enshrined discrimination.