A 14-week consultation asks if marriage in Scotland should be allowed for same-sex couples through a civil or religious ceremony. Currently, gay couples can enter a civil partnership which carries full legal rights but the ceremony cannot be conducted in religious premises.
Government ministers and officials say they intend to ensure religious organisations do not have to conduct these ceremonies against their will.
A recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found more than 60% of people believe same-sex couples should have the right to marry, compared with 19% who disagree.
The issue has already provoked splits within the SNP ranks. Last month, SNP MSP John Mason said in a parliamentary motion that no-one should be “forced” to approve of same-sex marriage.
The Shettleston MSP, a Baptist, insisted churches feared they could be taken to court if they refused to conduct ceremonies under any change to legislation. The motion has been signed by SNP MSPs Bill Walker, Dave Thompson and Richard Lyle.
Alyn Smith, who became the first openly gay SNP parliamentarian, criticised Mr Mason’s motion as lacking “any idea of respect at all”, and it was attacked by Nationalist MP Pete Wishart as a “nasty little anti-gay marriage motion” on Twitter.
Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon said: “In publishing the consultation today, we are setting out our initial view. We tend towards the view that same-sex marriage should be introduced.
“However, we are aware that for religious reasons, some faith groups and celebrants may not want to solemnise same-sex marriages, and that is why we are making it clear that they should not be obliged to do so.
“Although the Government has set out its initial view, we give an absolute assurance that all views will be listened to. No final views have been reached and no decisions have been taken.”
Mike Judge of the Christian Institute said: “All the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples through civil-partnership registrations. This is not about rights. This is about redefining marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.
“If marriage is redefined for homosexual marriage, that new definition will be the one that the state promotes as the standard. It will have huge implications for what is taught in schools and for wider society.”
Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie said: “We believe the time is now right to consult on options to provide genuine equality for same-sex couples and their families, by addressing the different status of civil partnership and marriage and so welcome the consultation.”
The Equality Network, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights organisation, welcomed the consultation.
Director Tim Hopkins said: “We agree that no religious body or religious celebrant should be required to conduct same-sex marriages. Some religious bodies want to conduct same-sex marriages, and they should be allowed to.
“The introduction of marriage equality in this term of the Scottish Parliament would add to Scotland’s reputation as a modern, fair and inclusive country.”
Green Party leader Patrick Harvie said: “There are practical issues about how to get the details of legislation right, and this consultation will resolve those matters. But the principle must be clear, and I call for a commitment for legislation to be introduced in 2012.”