HUMZA Yousaf warned SNP members that Kate Forbes could hamper the party's chances of growing support for independence.

In one of the sharpest digs of the first hustings of the race, the Health Secretary said whoever replaced Nicola Sturgeon would need to not just "tolerate" Scotland’s LGBTQ+ community, but "celebrate the diversity of our country" and work to advance their rights.

Failing to do could impact the party's chances of securing a Yes vote, he said.

Last week, Ms Forbes - a member of the socially conservative Free Church of Scotland - found herself coming under fire after she said she would not have voted for equal marriage had she been an MSP in 2014.

During the debate in Cumbernauld's theatre, the three were asked if a religious person could ever become Scotland's leader. 

Mr Yousaf said he was proud of his faith and proud of being the first Muslim in the cabinet.

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“We have to grow support for independence,” he told the crowd. 

“And it's so so important that whoever is first minister, that whether you're lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, whatever, whoever you are, that you can look the first minister in the eye, and you can have confidence that they will not only protect your rights, that they will not only tolerate you, but that they will celebrate you and that they will advance your rights where they possibly can.”

He said it was important for the party's cause that “people absolutely believe that whoever the first minister is, will not just, as I say, tolerate but celebrate the diversity of our country.

“And I think regardless of your faith, we should be able to do that.”

Responding, Ms Forbes said she had possibly answered “more questions on faith in a matter of days than most politicians will ever do in their lifetime.”

She added: “From my perspective, in the last few weeks I've learned a lot. I recognise that there are things that I have phrased or framed that I could have done better. And I've been very clear about that last week.

“I do hope that in Scotland our pluralistic and tolerant society can allow for people of faith to rise to the highest office.

“I hope, too, that we should hold our politicians to that high bar of being honest and open.

“So we know who they are, and can then make an informed decision on that basis. And I think that's critical in any election context.

“And my position is obviously that in a pluralistic society, I hope that I can defend your right to the hilt to have a faith or to have no faith. And hopefully, you can extend that same right to others, who have faith or have no faith.”

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The three also clashed over how to respond to the UK Government's veto of Holyrood's Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

“Let me be unequivocal about it,” Mr Yousaf said. “Let me make sure that you are hearing me absolutely clearly. We must challenge Section 35. We absolutely must.”

The Health Secretary said it was about the “principle of our democracy.”

“If we cave in, if we roll over to a Westminster power grab, they will come after legislation after legislation after legislation. They're already threatening to do it time and time and time again. So if we cave in what kind of message would that send does that send to the Scottish people?

“That we’re not willing to stand up for devolution, let alone what would happen in an independent Scotland.”

Ms Forbes said the UK Government were on “a mission to dismantle the devolution settlement.

“They are on a mission with their muscular unionism to ensure that they hinder as much as possible the work that we are doing.”

Ms Forbes said she believed MSPs could “sort out the Gender Recognition Reform Act” themselves.

“I think we can track a course that recognises that it has become a very challenging, toxic debate and find a way forward that ensures that we do not stigmatise the trans community further.

“I'd also give that security to women and girls when it comes to safe places. We can do that ourselves because one day we're going to be independent.

"And when we're independent, we're going to have to sort these things out ourselves.

“So yes, I would seek legal advice, but I'd far rather sort out the legislation ourselves without having to go to court or without having to seek Westminster's permission around what we do next.”

READ MORE: Kemi Badenoch defends Section 35 over Gender Recognition Reform Bill

Ms Regan - who resigned as community safety minister so she could vote against the legislation - said she had a “bit of a different view on this.”

She said the SNP had “really lost the trust of the country” on gender reform.

“I wouldn't challenge the Section 35,” she added. “Not because I think that it's okay for the UK to challenge our legislation, but for the simple reason that we're going to lose that court case.

"And we are going to be throwing probably hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money into something that the public, they don't support.”

“If I'm going to pick a fight with the UK Government, I'm going to do it on something where the public are behind me,” she said to only muted applause from the audience.

The hustings - the first of nine - was mostly collegiate.

As Mr Yousaf, Ms Forbes and Ms Regan took their seats on stage, the SNP President Michael Russell reminded the 272 party members squeezed into the town’s theatre that this was a “contest between friends.”

“We expect it to be positive and constructive, and forward-looking and informative,” he said, pleadingly. 

Given that everyone in the audience was a paid-up member, the candidates’ opening speeches were heavy on the constitution, with each restating their plans for winning independence.

Mr Yousaf said the SNP should not get bogged “down in the process” of independence.

He said that if he won, he would on the first day “instruct HQ to restart the Yes campaign.”

He promised that he would be "first activist" as well as first minister.

Ms Forbes told the crowd that the SNP had “for too many years” become “the party of referendums, rather than the party of independence.”

“If elected as first minister, the first job I will do on day one is to set out an independence action plan, a plan which outlines precisely how we are going to increase support for independence.

“But more than that, it sets out that in 2024 at the next election, we will put independence front and centre and in that election, we will fight for the right to hold a referendum within three months of that election.”

Ms Regan set out her “voter empowerment mechanism” which “will allow us to move forward with independence when the people of Scotland are ready."

She said she was the "unity candidate" for the independence movement.