Cardinal Keith O'Brien snubs gay marriage talks with Scottish government

Cardinal Keith O'Brien Cardinal O'Brien has previously called for a referendum to be held on gay marriage

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Scotland's Roman Catholic leader - Cardinal Keith O'Brien - has suspended direct communication with the Scottish government on gay marriage.

The move is in protest at the Scottish government's support for the introduction of same-sex marriages.

The cardinal has turned down an invitation to discuss the issue, leaving any talks to officials.

The Scottish government said First Minister Alex Salmond and the cardinal do continue to communicate.

A spokesman revealed Mr Salmond and the cardinal spoke on Saturday morning and had an "entirely amicable conversation on first-name terms".

However, in a letter to Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the cardinal asked for any future discussions between the church and government on the issue of same-sex marriage to take place between officials.

Religious freedoms

The cardinal's spokesman, Peter Kearney, told BBC Scotland: "Cardinal O'Brien is really keen that the perspective and the position of the Catholic church is conveyed to the Scottish government, but he isn't convinced that he necessarily has to do that in person.

Analysis

Cardinal O'Brien has been so outspoken against gay marriage in the past that even some Roman Catholics have privately winced.

In March he called the idea a "grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right".

But the Cardinal's public snub to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is no fit of temper, but a considered move in what has become a political game.

It could be seen as being similar to one country withdrawing its ambassador from another - indicating profound disagreement at the highest level.

By suspending personal discussions about same-sex marriage, the Cardinal is making a symbolic, but potent, gesture of his frustration.

But he is also signalling, as he has before, that he's prepared to recruit rank and file Roman Catholics in the political battle to prevent marriage being - as he sees it - "redefined".

"Also the situation we find ourselves in is one where we want to maintain a dialogue, and the cardinal wants to maintain a dialogue with the government, but that can be difficult when you feel all the things you have to say, to date at least, have been completely ignored."

The cardinal has previously called for a referendum on gay marriage, but the government has ruled out any possibility of one being held.

The Scottish government decided to change the law despite most of those who replied to its consultation opposing reform.

It has pledged to bring forward a bill on the issue later this year, and has indicated the earliest ceremonies could take place by the start of 2015.

'Honest disagreement'

The policy has been backed by the leaders of all five parties in the Scottish parliament, as well as by gay rights campaigners and some faith groups.

But it has been vigorously opposed by the Church of Scotland as well as the Roman Catholic church.

Same-sex couples in Scotland can already enter into civil partnerships, and the Scottish government has promised to protect religious freedoms and say any changes would not see churches forced to take part in same-sex ceremonies.

Start Quote

While this is an honest disagreement over policy, on a personal level relations between the first minister and the cardinal are extremely good”

End Quote First minister's spokesman

A spokesman for the first minister said it was "inevitable" that government ministers would not always agree with church leaders on policy issues.

He added: "While this is an honest disagreement over policy, on a personal level relations between the first minister and the cardinal are extremely good, as they are with Scotland's other faith leaders - Mr Salmond holds the cardinal in the highest regard and will always do so.

"Indeed, it is simply not the case that the first minister and the cardinal do not continue to communicate directly and speak on first name terms.

"We have made clear that we will protect religious freedom and freedom of expression - we are currently undertaking a focused stakeholder consultation to make sure that this happens, and we are delighted that officials from the church and government are to meet in order to discuss these very important matters.

"Faith groups and their celebrants will not be obliged to solemnise same-sex marriages, and we also intend to protect the current situation whereby the faith content of the curriculum in Catholic denominational schools is determined by the Scottish Catholic Education Service."

The UK government's consultation on allowing civil marriages for gay and lesbian couples closed in June.

The coalition is analysing the results before publishing its formal response but Prime Minster David Cameron has promised legislation before the next election.

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