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Scotland ‘needs faith opt-out from Westminster’ for equal marriage

Stephen Gray July 19, 2012

The Scottish government will ‘need’ clarification of the UK-wide Equality Act to ensure religious celebrants are not forced to conduct gay weddings against their will, according to a leaked email.

BBC Scotland said last night it had seen a leaked email between Scottish and English civil servants.

The email voiced concerns that the Equality Act 2010, which makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of services, may need to be amended to ensure religious bodies are not obliged to marry gays against their beliefs.

The Scottish government has pointed out that it had always said it may need to seek an amendment to the Act to allow religions to opt out of holding gay weddings.

Such a permissive system is backed by all main advocates for equal marriage rights in Scotland and is under consideration by the Scottish government while the government in England and Wales proposes not to allow faiths to marry gay couples at all. Fears of priests being forced to conduct gay weddings have been used as arguments against marriage equality across the UK.

While the email says Scottish ministers are expected to proceed with bringing legislation to Parliament, the Equality Act issue has prompted fears that the law may be delayed. understands that given the time scale involved in equal marriage legislation, such an Equality Act amendment could be in place before a Scottish Equal Marriage Act comes into effect, as long as there is cooperation between London and Edinburgh.

While an initial agreement with London needs to be in place before a bill is introduced, the email does not suggest that passing the actual Equality Act amendment, which could happen in London at the same time as the required secondary legislation is passed in Scotland, would delay marriage equality.

While an initial agreement with London needs to be in place before a bill is introduced, the email does not suggest that passing the actual Equality Act amendment, which could happen in London at the same time as the required secondary legislation is passed in Scotland, would delay marriage equality.

The leaked email said: “We may announce that we will proceed with the introduction of same-sex marriage, by means of both civil and religious ceremonies, and with the introduction of religious ceremonies to register civil partnerships.

“However we may also say, and give considerable prominence to saying, that the government recognises the need to provide appropriate protections for some in Scottish society who are against same sex marriage.

“I expect we will say that the Equality Act 2010 needs to be amended to provide full protection for individual celebrants who are opposed to same-sex ceremonies, even if their religious body has decided to opt in to carrying out such ceremonies.

“…We would not introduce a bill into the Scottish Parliament until we had reached agreement with the UK government on the types of amendment that might be needed to the Equality Act 2010.

“It is likely that our ministers would not wish to commence any Scottish Act introducing same-sex marriage until the amendment to the Equality Act is in place.”

The Scottish cabinet was widely but unofficially expected to make a clear decision on Tuesday on equal marriage rights in Scotland, instead referring the matter to a cabinet sub-committee headed by the deputy first minister.

It has pledged to make an announcement as to the way forward by the end of July. First Minister Alex Salmond has reiterated his commitment to equal marriage rights for gay couples, but said all arguments needed to be considered.

Responding to the e-mail, a Scottish government spokesperson said: “The decision on whether or not to bring forward legislation on same sex marriage is for the Scottish government. We will confirm our intentions on the way forward by the end of this month.

“We do not comment on leaks but this is not new information – it is set out on the consultation paper published last September that if same sex marriage is introduced in Scotland we would take steps to work with Westminster to make any changes needed to the Equality Act to protect individual celebrants.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: it was “working closely with the Scottish government to consider whether any specific changes to the Equality Act, or other legislation, may be required”.

They added: “We will produce conclusions on our own consultation – covering England and Wales – by the end of the year.”

Tim Hopkins of the Equality Network told “To make same-sex marriage work for Scotland, there will need to be cooperation between the Scottish and UK Governments to ensure that UK law and cross border issues are smoothed out.

“For example, how would a Scottish same-sex marriage be recognised in England if the couple moved south of the border? How would equality law (which is Britain-wide) work for same-sex marriages?

“The UK Government is already committed to the principle of same-sex marriage, and so we very much hope that they will work with the Scottish Government, and will make the necessary small changes to UK and English law, to enable the Scottish Government to bring equal marriage into effect.”

The email also suggested further guidance for teachers if gay couples are allowed to marry.

It said: “On education, our initial thinking is that we might need to issue more guidance on matters such as teachers using educational material which might be sensitive and on parents’ rights to be consulted on lessons which might be sensitive.

“Again, there may be pressure for legislation. However, we think this might be too inflexible and could have an adverse impact on a child’s right to an education.”

More: equal marriage, Equality Act, Equality Act 2010, gay marriage, Law, legislation, marriage equality, parliament, Scotland, Scotland, UK, Westminster

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