All religious institutions – including the Church of Scotland – will be free to decide for themselves if they would like to provide marriages for gay couples, under plans announced today.

The move comes after the UK Government yesterday unveiled its formal plans to allow gay couples to marry in England and Wales from 2013.

However, the Church of England and Church in Wales will be banned in law from offering same-sex marriages – a decision that has already been criticised by equality campaigners along with the Archbishop of Wales Dr Barry Morgan.

The Scottish Government has ruled out introducing similar conditions for the nation’s Presbyterian Church, although SNP ministers insist that no churches would be forced to hold same-sex weddings.

Ministers have already decided they want to make the change, and now need to consult on proposed legislation to be put to the Scottish Parliament.

The consultation on its draft legislation – opposed by the Church of Scotland and the nation’s Catholic Church – will last until March.

Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil said of the plans, which have cross-party support: “We are introducing same-sex marriage in Scotland because it is the right thing to do.”

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, added: “Equal marriage is the right and natural step towards the modern, tolerant and progressive Scotland we all want to see.”

The bill contains a number of other measures, including:

  • Allowing civil marriage ceremonies to take place anywhere agreed by the registrar and the couple, other than religious premises.
  • Establishing belief ceremonies, such as humanist ceremonies as a “third form of marriage”, alongside religious and civil events.
  • Allowing transgender people to stay married when obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate.
  • Introducing religious and belief ceremonies to register civil partnerships
  • Authorising Church of Scotland deacons to solemnise opposite sex marriage.

The draft bill came following a previous Scottish Government consultation on the issue, which produced a record 77,508 responses.