PinkNews Exclusive. The National Secular Society has criticised the Scottish Government for putting local authorities in an “invidious position” of having to decide individually whether it is permissible for religious registrars to discriminate against gay couples.
In March, Katy Clark, the Labour MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, wrote to Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil, seeking clarification over comments made by the MSP in October last year.
But he stressed that it was a requirement of all local authorities to ensure same-sex couples had absolutely no barriers to marriage ceremonies.
Mr Neil outlined how the arrangements governing marriage would mirror that of civil partnerships in Scotland. He described how some civil registrars disagree with civil partnerships, but local authorities have dealt with these incidents allowing “common sense” to prevail.
Responding to a statement issued by the Scottish Government, the National Secular Society (NSS) expressed its concern at the position and warned it could lead to cases of discrimination, when the first same-sex marriages begin in Scotland later this year.
NSS President Terry Sanderson told PinkNews.co.uk: “The Scottish Government is putting local authorities in an invidious position of having to decide individually whether it is OK for religious registrars to discriminate against gay couples.
“There should be a clear policy to guide them and that policy should be that gay couples are entitled to equal treatment from all registrars.
“Leaving local authorities unsure as to where they stand will also leave them open to legal challenges such as the one brought by Lillian Ladele in Islington.
“Although her case was rejected by the European Court of Human Rights, the court has since said that religious demands should be accommodated in the workplace unless there is a very strong reason not to do so.”
Mr Sanderson continued: “The court said that any policy aimed at restricting religious opt outs should have been agreed before any case is brought.
“Local authorities will have to make a very strong case for not allowing religious registrars to refuse to even administer same-sex marriages, let alone carry out ceremonies. If Lillian Ladele brought her case today, she would probably win.
“I expect we will see a similar case being brought quite soon, and likely result is that discrimination against gay people in registry offices will be recognised as legitimate.”
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government told PinkNews.co.uk: “Each local authority must provide an authorised registrar to conduct a marriage or civil partnership in the area chosen by the couple, regardless of that couple’s sexual orientation. It is a matter for local authorities to manage the provision of that service.
“There is no opt-out for individual registrars included in the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014.
“However, we have been clear that we expect local authorities to handle with sensitivity any registrar who objects to carrying out a same sex marriage on the basis of their religion or belief.”