Scotland is to be come the first part of the UK to legalise religious gay marriages despite two-thirds of people responding to an official consultation opposing the change.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish Deputy First Minister, today confirmed she will bring forward legislation but said it will include “important protections” for clergymen, teachers and parents who oppose the move.
She said she is working with the Home Office to amend UK equalities laws to ensure that celebrants cannot be prosecuted by gay couples if they refuse to conduct a marriage service.
But the SNP administration faces a backlash from religious leaders after the results of a public consultation, published to coincide with the announcement, showed 64 per cent of respondents opposed the change.
Only 36 per cent backed the move but Miss Sturgeon argued that other surveys showed a majority are in favour. A record 77,000 people responded to the consultation, three times as many as gave their views on the independence referendum.
The Deputy First Minister said the first gay marriages in Scotland are likely to take place at the start of 2015, the same year that the Coalition Government wants to make the change south of the Border.
But David Cameron is consulting on legalising civil gay marriages, whereas homosexual couples in Scotland will be able to have a religious service.
The Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church have led attacks on the proposals north of the Border, warning it will destroy the institution of marriage and their clergymen face legal action in the courts if they refuse to marry gay couples.
Announcing the decision to press ahead, Miss Sturgeon said: “We are committed to a Scotland that is fair and equal, and that is why we intend to proceed with plans to allow same-sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships.
“We believe this is the right thing to do. We are also mindful of the fact that the leaders of all of the other parties represented in parliament support same-sex marriage and that there is significant parliamentary support for legislation.”
But she denied the consultation results supported the Catholic Church’s call for a referendum on the issue, saying public votes should only be held on issues of constitution rather than conscience.
Miss Sturgeon also denied ignoring the findings, saying she had taken into account support among all the opposition party leaders and a Scottish Executive social attitudes survey showing a majority in favour.
She said existing equalities legislation prevents churches from being forced to conduct same-sex marriages but the law may have to be extended to protect individual clergymen from legal action.
The Home Office has indicated it is will to make the necessary amendments, she said. After this has been done, a draft Bill will be published later this year for consultation.
Miss Sturgeon also promised to protect the faith content of the curriculum in Catholic schools but would not say whether teachers in other schools would have a legal right to refuse to tell children about gay marriage.
However, she said parents would continue to have the right to withdraw their children from class if they disagreed with them being taught about homosexuality.
A Bill will be tabled at the Scottish Parliament next year and MSPs will be given a ‘free vote’, meaning they can vote in line with their consciences rather than the party whip.
It is thought a clear majority at Holyrood back the change. The SNP has a majority, but gay marriage is supported by the Liberal Democrats, many Labour MSPs and some Tories, including Ruth Davidson, their leader, who is homosexual.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: “This is a small but important step for equality in Scotland. I'm sure there will be bumps on the road but Nicola Sturgeon can count on my support to deliver equality in marriage.”
A Scottish Tory spokesman said: “Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson is on record supporting same sex marriage and has confirmed that, similar to other parties, MSPs will be given a free vote on the issue, if the SNP ever brings it to the chamber.”
The decision was also welcomed by the Equality Network, a gay rights campaign group. Tom French, its policy coordinator, said: “Today is a proud day for Scotland.
“Same-sex marriage is about equality and freedom - the freedom for couples, and religious and humanist groups that want to, to celebrate same-sex marriages.”