Scotland politics

SNP's John Swinney allays church fears on gay marriage

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Media captionSNP Finance Minister John Swinney answers questions during a BBC news website interview

Scottish cabinet member John Swinney has allayed fears that churches refusing to hold gay marriages could be open to court action.

The Scottish government, which favours the move, is consulting on the issue.

In a BBC news website interview, SNP Finance Secretary Mr Swinney said he did not think there would be "a danger" of court test cases.

Meanwhile, party members debated gay marriage at a busy fringe meeting at the SNP conference in Inverness.

Same-sex couples in Scotland currently have the option to enter into civil partnerships, but the SNP promised in its manifesto to consult on new legislation allowing gay marriages in churches.

But a parliamentary motion tabled by SNP MSP John Mason, stating no person or organisation should be forced to be involved in or to approve of same-sex marriage, sparked a row within the party, with some of his colleagues saying his action encouraged discrimination.

Speaking in a live webcast at the SNP conference in Inverness, Mr Swinney said he was personally in support of gay marriage, but insisted no part of the religious community would be forced to hold gay weddings.

He added: "I acknowledge this has divided opinion across Scotland.

"I think the government's right to go into consultation. The protection is also there so that no individual within the religious community is in no way obliged to do this."

And, when asked about possible test cases against churches refusing to hold same-sex ceremonies, Mr Swinney said: "I don't think that's a danger at all.

"I think this is an issue of clear sensitivity and, if we are making the provision available, we have to make it available on the basis that the commitments and the protections that we put in place are commitments and protections that we can fully honour."

The finance secretary went on: "You have to look at the way in which issues and debates develop within your country.

"The government must be responsive to the aspirations and attitudes of people within our country. Equally, we must also be responsive to the concerns and anxieties that exist on particular issues."

The fringe meeting debate on gay marriage - which is not being discussed at the conference itself - was hosted by MEP Alyn Smith.

Image caption The SNP fringe meeting on gay marriage was well attended

He said: "I'm proud of our party - even more than I usually am.

"We've taken on a real issue of real importance to the future of our nation about what sort of society we want to be.

"We are having that discussion in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect and mutual affection."

Most contributors spoke in support of gay marriage, although there were several dissenting voices, including SNP member Ann Cameron, who told the meeting: "I'm very sad to see that young people are being given the sort of ideas that they are apparently accepting.

"There's a saying that, when your son asks for bread, he's being given a stone, and I think that's the stage that the SNP has reached. I just can't say how sad I am about it."

Borders delegate Sue Carroll, added: "I'm a believer in the bible. I have personally read it from cover to cover, so I know what the bible says.

"We are at the threshold of independence, and we are here because God has blessed this nation."

She added: "Independence depends on what the SNP does with this issue, and whether we will be blessed.

God's blessing will fall from us if we allow gay marriage rather than partnership."

SNP Perth and North Perthshire MP Pete Wishart said he believed gay marriage will happen in Scotland.

And, in reference to the row over scrapping the ban on teaching homosexuality in schools at the start of devolution, he said: "They're trying to say it's our 'Section 28 moment'.

"It's not our party's 'Section 28 moment' - this is a debate that will be held with mutual respect, that will listen to the other side."

Strathkelvin and Bearsden MSP Fiona McLeod called for a more secular society, saying: "I've been married for 32 years and I've never understood why my marriage had anything to do with a church and not to do with the state.

"I would like to propose that, in an independent Scotland, marriage is something that is recognised by the state and, thereafter, can be blessed by a church, if that's what the two people want."

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