A bill to legalise marriage for same-sex couples has been formally included in today’s legislative agenda for the new term of the Scottish parliament.

First Minister Alex Salmond made the announcement in front of MSPs at Holyrood this afternoon.

The policy has been subjected to a vociferous backlash by the head of Scotland’s Catholic Church, and relations between Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Mr Salmond have reportedly become strained in recent months.

Speaking this afternoon on the BBC News Channel, Mr Salmond said: “We are making it absolutely clear that no Christian church or any domination for that matter, or any religion, or practitioner, or celebrant will be forced to take part in any such marriage, it will just mean people will have equality before the law.

“I think it’s the right thing to do – but the parliament will debate it, and I’m sure, once we can get across the guarantee, of [religious freedom], and above all freedom of speech […] once we get across that to some of the churches, I think they will feel more reassured”.

Mr Salmond concluded by saying: “I think it’s a debate we can have, and I think it’s a debate across the parliament, that will do the country good”.

SNP MEP Alyn Smith, who is also a director of LGBT Youth Scotland, welcomed the inclusion of the Marriage and Civil Partnerships Bill in today’s timetable and said: “The SNP government is leading on this issue within these isles and I’m proud to be part of that party, putting progress at its core.

“Marriage is, for me, about two people who love each other and it is clear to see that a majority of Scots agree with that view. While I will not myself have a vote on the legislation, I have faith in the good sense of our MSPs to decide, as our representatives, what sort of arrangements we want to live by.

“I now look forward to the consultation process and publication of the bill, which will be a momentous step for Scotland and our LGBT community.”