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Scotland: winning the gay marriage fight

GSN takes an in-depth look at the fight for same-sex marriage in Scotland – a battle with important lesson for equality campaigners worldwide
The Scotland for Marriage vans which toured the anti-gay message.

Moves towards gay marriage in England and Wales have been making big headlines but many south of the border don’t realize that Scotland has been having it’s own battle on the issue and is actually leading the way.

The UK government’s consultation on how to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales only started in March and is still going on (you can take part here) but Scotland is far ahead having started it’s government’s consultation in September, finishing it in December.

At one point it seemed to be full-steam ahead for the Scots. But citing the huge response to the consultation, 50,000 people replied, the Scottish government has now delayed publishing the results of that. Due in March, the outcome will not be known until June.

Already opinion polls suggest a majority of people in Scotland support equal marriage. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2010, indicated 61% support and just 19% opposition.

But extremist Christians are trying to apply political pressure, particularly on the ruling Scottish National Party, to derail the process.

Interestingly, and in contrast to Westminster’s proposals for civil same-sex marriage, Scotland’s gay marriage proposals includes provision for religious ceremonies, so that faith based organisations which would like to wed gay couples would be able to do so – although those who don’t wouldn’t, of course, be obliged.

In a fight back against the religious right, same-sex marriage campaigners have called on the Scottish government to prove their country can lead the way on marriage equality after the UK government failed to include plans for England and Wales in this year’s Queen’s Speech.

Gay Star News has spent the last few weeks investigating the issues and speaking to some of the key players – here is our exclusive report.

Bashed by the bishop

A powerful ‘Scotland For Marriage’ campaign has been opposing the calls for equality; it is mostly the same organisations that previously fought and failed to retain laws against ‘promoting homosexuality’ Scotland: the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Scotland, The Christian Institute, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), Destiny Churches, and The Evangelical Alliance.

Of these the most outspoken has been the UK Catholic Cardinal Keith O'Brien describing same-sex marriage as a ‘grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right’, as well as comparing it to legalizing slavery – a move that even the right wing press found somewhat bizarre.

He claimed that gay marriage would be forced on Catholic churches and used discredited research to say same-sex relationships are unhealthy and inferior to straight ones, especially in bringing up children.

Not content with that, O’Brien has said that if same-sex marriage goes ahead, it won’t be the end of the ‘aberrations’. ‘Why stop there?’ he asked. ‘Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage…’ And he warned that schools will be forced to stock ‘homosexual fairy stories’ in their libraries.

Scotland for Marriage aims to halt the proposed bill in its track, saying only straight couples are entitled to wed and that same-sex marriage should not be imposed on religious organisations and that it is contrary to religion and grassroots views. This despite the fact that the proposals ensures that only faith organisations which wish to conduct gay weddings would do so.

Their strategy so far is to aggressively lobby and campaign on the issue in the run up to the local elections held last week to pressurize the country’s politicians and confuse public opinion with misleading and often scaremongering information.

Notably when the Council of Glasgow Imams came out against equality they used similar arguments to O’Brien and the Christian extremists’ campaign.

On 1 May, Scotland for Marriage handed 15,000 leaflets out in Glasgow and used mobile billboards mounted on vans to argue their case ahead of the local elections. They particularly called on voters not to support any party or candidate that openly backs marriage equality. The following day the vans were also visible in Edinburgh in front of the Scottish Parliament.

You’ve gotta have faith

In response a large coalition of multi-faith groups launched a pro-equality campaign called Faith in Marriage on 30 April, asking the Scottish Parliament to fully support marriage equality and lift the ban on religious same-sex marriages in Scotland.

Dispelling the myth that the fight for gay marriage is a fight between LGBT people and the religious community, the new group contains an impressive list of faith groups. Members of the coalition include the United Reformed Church, the Quakers, the Unitarians, Liberal Judaism, the Humanists, the Iona Community, Buddhists, the Open Episcopal Church, the Metropolitan Community Church, and the Pagan Federation. In addition, ministers from the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church are also backing it.

The coalition agrees that religious bodies that do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages should not have to but it argues that opponents of same-sex marriage are actually attempting to ‘impose their views on all other faith groups and the rest of society’ pointing to recent lobbying by the Bishops Conference of Scotland and the Council of Glasgow Imams as evidence. How can this be the face of religious freedom?

In their joint-letter the coalition warns that it would ‘strongly oppose’ any attempt to restrict same-sex marriage to civil-only ceremonies. Instead they are seeking assurances from MSPs that any proposed legislation will ‘protect and extend’ freedom of religion and belief by ‘giving those religious and humanist bodies that do want to conduct same-sex marriage the right to do so.’

Speaking with Gay Star News, Bishop Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church said: ‘I am somewhat upset that fellow Christians state the Bible is against same-sex relationship, it says nothing of that sort at all, it only talks about abusive heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

‘It’s not true that Christian faith groups are in particular against same marriage but rather a minority.’

And Reverend David Coleman, Convenor of the Church and Society Committee, United Reformed Church in Scotland, told us: ‘I am in favour of marriage equality, marriage is a good thing. We really look forward to the day when Scotland will not ban individuals from celebrating their marriage and bringing their faith into it, we want an end to the double discrimination which LGBT people face.’

While in his interview with GSN, Reverend Scott McKenna, Church of Scotland Minister for Mayfield Salisbury Parish in Edinburgh, stated that while the Church of Scotland’s official position is undecided, he ‘very much supports equality.’

He continued: ‘If you don’t support equality, you are saying that somehow heterosexual people are better, and LGBT people are somehow not as good. That’s just pure discrimination and homophobia which sanctions personal pain, low self-esteem and ultimately violence against individuals and self. This is a cycle that needs to be broken!’

He also added that his congregation ‘is very supportive of marriage and don’t see what the problem is.’

Reverend Scott McKenna backs lesbian and gay marriage.

Other religious leaders have expressed their support of marriage equality, to Gay Star News, all affirming that their congregations fully back same-sex marriage and wish to solemnise and bless LGBT people who wish to get married.

Commenting on the contrasting Faith in Marriage and the Scotland for Marriage campaigns, Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network, a National Scottish campaign for Marriage Equality said: ‘The Faith in Marriage campaign demonstrates that many people of faith and religious organisations support marriage equality which contradicts the impression that the Scotland for Marriage wants to convey.

‘That is after all what 61% of the public agree on and all political parties in Scotland agree on.’

Weeding the grassroots

As for the claim that Scotland for Marriage represents the grassroots view, Hopkins said: ‘They did not consult Catholics. They told Catholics what to think about the issue, rather than ask them. So for example, when the campaign offered their contribution to the government consultation, campaigners handed out postcards at Catholic Churches during mass for attendees to sign that they are against same-sex marriage.

‘However they were not given the choice to express their opinion if they support same-sex marriage. We know from independent surveys that have been done that the majority of Catholics support same-sex marriage. So one can dispute the campaigns’ claim that it is a grass-roots driven.

‘The equality network, by contrast, is a grassroots campaign which asked Scottish LGBT people if they wanted marriage equality with 85% of respondents in favor. The Scottish Youth Parliament, consulted 48,000 young people in Scotland, and same-sex marriage equality came out as one of the top priorities. So there you have a genuine grassroots campaign.’

Hanzala Malik (Labour) and Humza Yousaf (SNP), the two Scottish Muslim MSPs have pledged their support for marriage equality as did Anas Serwar, MP, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party and a Muslim. This according to Hopkins shows among Scottish Muslims there is a broad range of opinions as well.

Hopkins also pointed to ‘one prominent politician within the UK government who identifies as a Catholic, Ian Duncan Smith’ as supporting equality.

‘For most politicians though,’ Hopkins exclaimed to GSN, ‘their religion is a personal thing, and they will judge the issue according to the evidence.’

Already 59 MSPs, according to Hopkins pledged their support by signing the Equality Pledge of the Equality Network and many more have expressed their support in public, including First Minister Alex Salmond and the Second Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Thus in addition to grassroots support, all the five political parties in Scotland, including leaders of Scottish government ‘fully support marriage equality.’

Hopkins further added that after the results of the consultation have been analysed and announced in June he ‘fully expects the Scottish Government to introduce a draft bill for same-sex marriage in the autumn and then complete the consultation on the draft bill by the end of this year. So the actual bill can be introduced to for a vote in the Scottish Parliament by early next year and pass, at the latest by the end of it. So it is perfectly feasible expect marriage equality by the end of 2013.’

Politics of fear

Commenting on the claim of the Scotland for Marriage that same-sex relationships are inferior to mixed sex relationships and that they can be harmful both to partners and children, Hopkins said: ‘There was a very good broad review published about two years ago in Journal of Marriage and Family entitled “does the gender of parents matter?” which concluded that there is no evidence that children do better if their parents are married and no evidence that children do better if parents are of a mixed-sex relationship, or biological parents of the child.

‘What mattered most were the love, commitment and quality of care that the parents show and actually, if you look all the evidence published statistically, two women do a better job than a mixed-sex parents in bringing up children. Thus same-sex partners are just as good as parenting as mixed-sex parents and that is the kind of evidence is clearly refutes the misinformation and negative language used by the Scotland for Marriage for campaign.’

‘Since they know they have lost the argument in public opinion they are now trying to run a campaign of scaremongering about what will happen if marriage equality becomes law; saying, for example, that Catholic churches and mosques will be forced to conduct same sex weddings. That is not true.

‘There are seven neighbouring countries who introduced same-sex marriage over 11 years and in none has this been the case. The government of Scotland said it would ensure that via legislation and we agree with that.

‘More misinformation was distributed in Glasgow printed on leaflets which stated that Catholic schools will not be able to tell pupils what the Catholic view of marriage is, that is nonsense. There are three issues which are legal in Scotland, contraception, divorce and abortion, which the Catholic schools are entitled to voice their opinions on. It will be exactly the same. The Catholic Schools would be able to tell pupils that they think a marriage should be between a man and a woman, just as they are able to say that the Catholic Church thinks sex should be only conducted between married couples, even though the law in Scotland legalizes sex between consenting people from the age of 16.’

Hopkins is critical that the political leadership in Scotland is not ‘speaking against the very hurtful language used by opponents of equality, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.’

His views are echoed by the Director of Stonewall Scotland, Colin Macfarlane.

‘While it is fantastic that all the major party leaders support marriage equality, we need our leaders to do is to stand up against homophobia in general,’ he told Gay Star News. ‘I think our politicians can be a bit bolder to stand against homophobia.’

Politics of hope

Speaking with Gay Star News, Marco Biagi, an out gay MSP for the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party said: ‘There was always going to be a strong campaign against marriage equality, I think it is odd that they are targeting the council elections when they have no say on national marriage law. But they are trying to raise their profile and in this respect they appear to be succeeding.’

Biagi is clear that both the public and politicians see through the campaigns quite clearly: ‘Scotland for Marriage attempt to portray this issue as religion versus equality, when there are a number of diverse religious organisations that want to offer same-sex marriage and have come out in support of it. The fact the Scotland for Marriage hasn’t managed to rouse a broad range of range of denominations in their support shows there is a great diversity of opinion on same-sex marriage and it is not as clear cut as they attempt to portrayed.’

We questioned Biagi about the critique of his party’s leadership expressed by Hopkins and Macfarlane, to which he carefully responds: ‘In any debate there are helpful and unhelpful contributions, all indications are that equal marriage campaign is enjoying wide grassroots support; it’s a vision of a more equal, inclusive, more accepting Scotland and that’s the kind of country that people want to live in, not a Scotland that is divided or separated on the grounds of sexuality or anything else.

‘Alex Salmond [SNP’s leader and Scotland’s First Minister] was very clear he is for equality provided that no religious organisations are going to be compelled to carry same-sex marriage, which is exactly the position of the Equality Network.

‘Any opportunity I get, any platform, any microphone, any interview, I will talk until I am blue in the face about the vision for Scotland, that is inclusive, tolerant, accepting where we have marriage equality for all minorities. I think talking relentlessly about what we do want, the kind of Scotland we do want to live in, is for me more productive then getting into a battle with a religious leader, where all indications clearly show the majority of Catholic population of Scotland are in favor of marriage equality.

‘I would rather not alienate them, when, to be frank, their religious leaders are doing quite a good job of that themselves. It’s how we campaign in the SNP, what talk relentlessly about what we believe in, we don’t get dragged into battles that will lead people to switch off, or some slagging match. I think the [pro-gay marriage] campaigns have been visionary in their approaches, talking about what they want rather than being dragged into conflict.

‘When confronted politics of fear the politics of hope will always win. This is a classic situation when a vision of hope of a better country is presented against a vision of fear and hate, and the better vision will always win out.’

Marriage and independence

It is clear the Scotland for Marriage profile-raising strategy had some success but in terms of impact on the local elections it was a failure.

Garry Otton, an LGBT advocate from the Secular Scotland group told us: ‘The Scotland for Marriage coalition wanted to see everyone vote for candidates from parties that oppose same-sex marriage. That’ll be the Scottish Christian Party or BNP. Well, they’ve lost. Not just the fair, young-minded people who do not share their bigoted views; but also their deposits.’

The Glasgow Labour Council, who got re-elected, is one of the strongest supporters of Marriage Equality in Scotland, while the SNP has increased the number of councillors in the local elections.

Hopkins adds: ‘Scotland for Marriage is using scare tactics, effectively trying to bully and scare MSPs that they will run a big single issue campaign that will cause them to lose their seats in the next general election, setting the local elections as an example. Clearly they have lost.’

Regarding the threat that Scotland for Marriage has been making against the SNP, stating that if the Scottish Government goes ahead with the bill they will launch a campaign against Scottish Independence from Britain Hopkins says: ‘That’s a bit of strange one, the UK government is in favour of same-sex marriage, so that argument is irrelevant. I think one of the reasons that people are going to vote for independence is because they have a vision of Scotland as a modern, progressive forward looking nation like our neighbors Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands – small and highly successful countries that have full equality.

‘So if Scotland for Marriage were to campaign against independence it would have no effect, if anything it may encourage young people to vote even more strongly for independence.’

Last week, the Sunday Times reported that some Scottish government ministers were privately calling for any proposals to be delayed; quoting a source close to an SNP Minister as warning ‘The view is that it does not make sense for the SNP to have this fight before the referendum…’

The Equality Network say that delaying legislation until after the Independence Referendum would be a mistake: ‘Delaying a decision on same-sex marriage would put the issue centre-stage during the referendum campaign, and would undermine any good will that the Scottish government secured when they brought forward equal marriage proposals.’

Tom French, policy coordinator for the Equality Network, added: ‘The Scottish government now has the perfect opportunity to prove that Scotland is capable of being the progressive beacon that our political leaders want it to be by leading the way on equal marriage rights.’

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