THE idea of refusing to be in the same room as a colleague because they are Catholic seems outrageous in the modern workplace.

But Labour MSP Michael McMahon, who grew up in Lanarkshire and worked for over a decade as a welder from the late 1970s, cites it as an example of the bigotry he once faced because of his faith.

He said: "When I worked in a factory the personnel manager wouldn't attend meetings I was taking part in, because he didn't want to attend a meeting with Catholics.

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"I have also known of problems in different parts of my community where there have been tensions because of religion in the past.

"In the late 1990s there was a gang of boys in the Bellshill area who were running around and basically terrorising people who were Catholics."

Despite years of trying to stamp out sectarianism there are some who still claim bigotry against Catholics is alive and kicking. The religious intolerance facing modern Catholics has been likened to the experience of the black American citizens in the 1950s and 1960s by Scottish Catholic Church spokesman Peter Kearney.

His comments have once again reopened the debate over sectarianism. However, others say there is little evidence for his claims and attack the use of an "over-the-top" analogy.

McMahon said the problem of sectarianism was now diminishing, but argued that bigotry still exists and raised concerns that the debate was always around the "two extremes".

"There are those who want to ignore the problem and those who want to overstate it," he said. "My concern is that prevents us from getting a genuine analysis of the current situation."

But he added: "I disagree with the analogy with the black civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. I don't think sectarianism or anti-Catholicism in Scotland can be compared [with that]."

However, historian Tom Devine said the issue was being raised "30 to 40 years too late".

"Systematic discrimination in the labour market died out very rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s," he said. "Ironically enough the implosion of the old great Scottish industries, particularly engineering and shipbuilding where it was endemic, helped kill it off.

"Over the past 25 years we have seen the full-scale emancipation of the Catholic people of Scotland – Catholics are now playing pre-eminent roles across the board." Devine, senior research professor in history at Edinburgh University, added: "They were never as oppressed as the blacks of the southern United States as he [Kearney] seems to imply.

"That is an intemperate, over-the-top statement – certainly today there is nothing of that type."

While much of the focus of sectarianism has been around Glasgow-based football teams in recent years, the roots of the issue stretch back many decades.

Scotland experienced its "sectarian crisis" later than countries such as the US and England, where a wave of immigrants from the Irish famine was met with a "violent" reaction, Devine said.

It was not until World War I, when society in Scotland suffered a collapse in confidence due to factors such as the depression and emigration, when Irish Catholics became the scapegoats for the crisis.

The general assembly of the Church of Scotland even urged the British cabinet during the 1920s and 30s to prohibit further Irish Catholic immigration and repatriate some of those who were in prison or hospital.

But when that failed, the Church "changed tack", Devine said.

"It approached Scottish employers to employ only those of 'the Scottish race' and to promote only those of 'the Scottish race'," he said. "This is the beginning of the infamous period of 'what school did you go to' and 'what boy's brigade were you in'."

Some argue there has been evidence of anti-Catholicism in recent years. Dr John Kelly, a lecturer in the sociology of sport at Edinburgh University, cited examples on the football field, such as then Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc, cautioned for breach of the peace after blessing himself during a match against Rangers in 2006.

IT caused a storm of controversy, with the Catholic Church raising concerns about action being taken over a "gesture of religious reverence". But the Crown Office insisted the decision was made taking into account other behaviour by the player, which added up to conduct that could incite disorder.

Kelly said Boruc was painted as a "villain" by some for his action. He also believed Kearney's comments were trying to highlight that some Catholics in Scotland feel the need to "privatise" their religion and not be "overly Catholic" in public places.

"I am cautious about how much merit these claims have, but I think there is some evidence for some of the claims of Catholics, for want of a better phrase, 'keeping the heid doon' or having to try and fit in," he said.

"Whether or not that is the case in the present day is debatable, of course – but I think that is certainly what some Catholics have believed to be the case."

The Catholic Church declined a request from the Sunday Herald to interview Kearney or another senior figure from the Church on examples of how Catholics are experiencing bigotry in modern society.

But in a letter published last week, Kearney said: "In much the same way as America's black citizens in an earlier era were urged to straighten their hair and whiten their complexions to minimise their differences with the white majority, many will surely urge Scottish Catholics to stop sending their children to Catholic schools or making public or overt declarations of faith."

He also pointed to recent statistics on religiously aggravated offences as evidence of that sectarianism is widespread and "on the rise".

Those figures, published by the Scottish Government last November, show Catholics were the religious group targeted in 58.1% of such crimes in 2011-12, a total of 509 cases. The statistic for the previous year was 57.7% and 400 crimes. Cases in which Protestants were targeted rose from 253 – 36.5% of all religiously aggravated offences in 2010-11 – to 353 and 40.3% – in 2011-12. But the analysis also notes: "The majority of victims were police officers and workers.

"This suggests that for the majority of charges it is unlikely the accused knew the religious affiliation/belief of the victim at the time of the incident and that the religious abuse was more arbitrary in nature."

An academic analysis carried out in 2004 entitled Sectarianism In Scotland found half of Catholics living in Scotland believed their religion made a difference to how they were treated.

But with only 1% reporting experience of any discrimination personally due to their religion, the authors suggested this showed the "power of the myth of sectarianism".

A survey carried out by Glasgow City Council in 2003 found two-thirds of respondents disagreed with the idea that sectarianism "is becoming a things of the past". It also revealed 59% of respondents believed Catholics faced prejudice and 55% thought Protestants faced prejudice.

However 1.1% of respondents said they had been turned down for a job or received poor treatment because of their faith, and less than 1% reported being victimised because of their religious beliefs by, for example, a physical assault or harassment.

Of increasing concern to many in the Catholic Church, however, is a perception that its beliefs are under attack in modern society.

Yesterday a letter signed by more than 1000 priests in England raised concerns that religious freedom could be under threat due to plans to introduce same-sex marriage. And a major row broke out last year when Cardinal Keith O'Brien was named Bigot Of The Year by gay rights charity Stonewall for describing gay marriage as a "grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right".

The Church reacted furiously, condemning the group's "intolerant and intimidatory tactics".

Liz Leydon, editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, argued the problem was no longer about the type of "knee-jerk" reaction to a person's religious background.

She said: "There is a distinction to be made between that blind bigotry and what the Church now faces, which is more attacks on Catholic teaching.

"Basically Church teaching has come under attack in recent years from secular society and from government legislation. It is really not something which is specific to any political party, it really is an indication of the direction society is going in.

"For example within the marriage reform proposals, there is no way to protect Catholic education within that legal change. What would happen to Catholic schools if same-sex marriage is legalised?

Leydon added: "There is no denying Catholics have made huge progress in public life and the professions in Scotland and that is something to be celebrated.

"But there is the flip side to that for the rank-and-file Catholic, the man in the street, who would maybe face a more subtle form of anti-Catholic bigotry these days."

The Kirk – which has previously expressed regret for any part it played in the past in sectarianism – expressed concerns about "intolerance" towards faith-based groups from a "small and vocal" sect in secularism.

Rev Sally Foster Fulton, convener of the Church And Society Council Of The Church Of Scotland added: "The Church, however, must resist seeing an anti-religious agenda in every statement that disagrees with its stance."

Alistair McBay, of the National Secular Society, which wants to see an end to segregated schooling, believes this is where the Catholic Church's accusations of bigotry often stem from. "My issue – particularly with the Catholic Church in Scotland – is that anyone who expresses disagreement with them is automatically anti-Catholic," he said.