Kate Forbes has said she would not have voted for equal marriage if she had been an MSP at the time.

In a series of interviews after confirming that she was standing in the race to replace Nicola Sturgeon, the Finance Secretary also said she had “significant concerns” about the Gender Recognition Reform Bill passed by MSPs before Christmas.

She also confirmed that she would not challenge the UK Government's block of the law in the courts.

Ms Forbes's membership of the socially conservative Free Church of Scotland has come under much scrutiny in the days since Ms Sturgeon decided to stand down.

On Monday, she said her faith should not bar her from political office. 

"Ultimately in a pluralistic and a tolerant society my approach is to defend your right to live and to love, and to do so without fear or harassment and I would hope that you might afford me the same right, to practice my faith in accordance with mainstream teaching," she said.

READ MORE: Kate Forbes confirms she is standing for SNP leader

However, her comments on gay marriage have sparked an angry backlash.

Asked by the BBC if she thought a man can marry another man, the MSP said: "I do, under the legal provisions in this country. I am a servant of democracy in this country, equal marriage is a legal right. And therefore, I would defend that legal commitment.

"Incidentally, though, I would hope that others can defend the rights of other minorities, including religious minorities that might take a different view." 

The Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch was asked about her position on "morality" of gay marriage.

"Well, in terms of the morality of the issue, I am a practising Christian, I practice the teachings of most mainstream religions, whether that's Islam, Judaism, Christianity, that marriage is between a man and a woman.

"But that's what I practice. As a servant of democracy, in a country where this is law, I would defend to the hilt your right and anybody else's right, to live unto love without harassment or fear." 

Ms Forbes said she thought it possible to "have a conscience vote on certain matters, and also to hold high public office."

"Ultimately in a pluralistic and a tolerant society my approach is to defend your right to live and to love, and to do so without fear or harassment and I would hope that you might afford me the same right, to practice my faith in accordance with mainstream teaching.

"I would defend to the hilt a Muslim's ability to do that. And I would hope that others might defend my right to do that."

Ms Forbes told the Scotsman she would have followed the example of Angela Merkel who, as Chancellor of Germany, voted against an equal marriage bill in 2017.

“I believe that it should be a conscience vote because of its profound significance in all mainstream faiths.

"I think for me, Angela Merkel is the example I would follow, I would have voted, as a matter of conscience, along the lines of mainstream teaching in most major religions that marriage is between a man and a woman."

"But I would have respected and defended the democratic choice that was made.

"It is a legal right now and I am a servant of democracy, I am not a dictator.”

Her comments on the Gender Recognition Reform Bill means the five-week contest to replace Nicola Sturgeon looks set to be dominated by the row, with Ms Forbes and her closest rival Humza Yousaf taking diametrically opposing views.  

The Bill simplifies the process for obtaining a gender recognition certificate by removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, sometimes described as self-id.

It also reduces the length of time someone would need to live in their acquired gender from two years to less than 12 months, and lowers the minimum age for applications from 18 to 16. 

Last month, for the first time in the history of devolution, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack made an order under section 35 of the Scotland Act to stop the legislation from receiving royal assent.

He said the Bill would impact the UK-wide Equality Act.

Nicola Sturgeon has disputed that and promised to challenge the Tory minister's veto in the courts. 

However, Ms Forbes said that if was to take over from the First Minister she would be "loath" to end up in a legal battle with the UK Government.

Asked if she would have voted for the Bill, Ms Forbes said: "I have been on record saying that I had significant concerns about self ID and I would have had those significant concerns about self ID and therefore, the Bill in its current form, I would have struggled to vote for."

Asked if she would have opposed it, she replied: "I would not have been able to vote for the principle of self ID."

When it was pointed out that that meant she would have had to have resigned as Finance Minister - had she been in parliament at the time - she said: "Well, obviously, that would have been a question of collective responsibility. And that would have been a decision that I'd have had to take in discussion with colleagues, obviously, I wasn't there."

Asked if she would continue with plans to seek a judicial review of the UK Government's Section 35 order, Ms Forbes told the BBC: "We obviously need legal advice. So whatever I say just now is caveated by the fact that we need legal advice.

"I've been out of government for seven months. My polling, as it were, is based on conversations with normal ordinary people over the last seven months, and to a person they say focus on the NHS, focus on the cost of living crisis, and focus on making the case for independence.

"That I think is more of a priority than legal cases.

"So I would be loath to challenge it. But I understand the principle here, which is that the UK Government should not overturn Scottish legislation.

"That is an important principle which I hold to, but I think on this, seek legal advice and recognise that it isn't a priority."

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf ditches Nicola Sturgeon's de facto referendum plan

In a separate interview with STV, she went further: "Well, I don't think that we should challenge the Section 35 in court, because I think the public want us to focus on things like the NHS, on making the case for independence, on the cost of living crisis, not on another court challenge, but I would engage with the UK Government to look at how we amend the Bill further."

The leadership hopeful said the Scottish Government should "enter into an adult conversation with the UK Government" about how the legislation could be amended. 

"I have never been averse to reform of the gender recognition act. And so I think we do need to reform it, to make it less onerous.

"But in so doing, we need to look at the amendments that would make it compatible, and ensure again, that we're not making decisions without listening to all the different voices that are affected."

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon confident of ability of SNP leadership candidates

Asked explicitly if she thought someone should be able to simply declare that they are a woman if they were born biologically male, Ms Forbes said: "I don't think self-identification is sufficient."

At his campaign launch, Humza Yousaf, was asked if it was fair that he had not received criticism over his faith.

"No, because people can look at my track record. I'm going be fasting for Ramadan in a number of months. I don't hide the fact that I'm a Muslim, people know that. 

"But I don't legislate on the basis of my faith, I legislate on what I think is in the best interest of the country, that's why my record speaks for itself.

"I'm the person that took the Hate Crime Bill through the Parliament, which extended more rights to the LGBT community. It's why I support the GRR Bill, it's why I support my buffer zones around abortion clinics.

"So look, my track record will speak for itself. For others, that's for them to answer about their own values."

Mr Yousaf also confirmed that continue the legal challenge against the Section 35. 

“This is about an assault, an attack on our very democratic institutions and yes, I think we should absolutely be challenging that in court," he said. 

“Somebody's really going to suggest to me that the first time a Section 35 order is going to be used by the UK government that we lay down and allow them to trample over the will of the Scottish Parliament on a bill that was not just supported by the majority, but had support from every single political party in that chamber?”