Cardinal Keith O'Brien in gay wedding vote call

Cardinal Keith O'Brien Cardinal O'Brien has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage

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Britain's most senior Roman Catholic has urged the Scottish government to hold a referendum on proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien said a vote should be held because of intense public interest in the issue.

Gay rights campaigners said a referendum would be a waste of money.

Scots ministers, who favour same-sex marriage, are to announce legislation this week after their consultation resulted in 80,000 responses.

Same-sex couples in Scotland currently have the option to enter into civil partnerships and the Holyrood government has insisted no part of the religious community would be forced to hold gay weddings in churches.

The issue has ignited a debate between gay rights supporters and the Catholic Church, which is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage.

Cardinal O'Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, said the marriage consultation received three times more responses than the government's consultation on the independence referendum, which saw more than 26,000 people share their views.

Mock gay wedding outside Holyrood Gay rights campaigners staged a mock wedding outside Holyrood last week

"Clearly, if it is sensible to hold a referendum on independence, it is crucial that we have one on marriage," he said, adding: "It is the only way the country can move forward on this issue.

"Let all those who have a view on this subject place their trust in the Scottish people and let Scotland decide."

Cardinal O'Brien has already authorised a plan to raise £100,000 through special church collections to support the Scotland For Marriage campaign against same-sex marriage.

But LGBT charity The Equality Network said a referendum would result in the "Americanisation" of Scottish politics, with big-money campaigns run by professional lobby groups.

The organisation's policy co-ordinator Tom French, said: "Our MSPs were elected on clear manifesto commitments to consider the evidence, and decide, and we have confidence in them to do that.

"A referendum would be un-Scottish, unfair and a colossal waste of taxpayer's money."

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "The cabinet have had a first discussion on the next steps following the consultation on same sex marriage and the registration of civil partnerships and have asked for some further detail.

"We fully expect to be in a position to publish the way ahead this month."

Although civil partnerships in Scotland offer the same legal treatment as marriage in areas such as inheritance, pensions provision, life assurance, child maintenance, next of kin and immigration rights, they are still seen as distinct from marriage.

A man and a woman can opt for a religious or civil marriage ceremony, whereas a same-sex partnership is an exclusively civil procedure.

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