The United Free Church of Scotland is grateful for the opportunity to comment on this Bill as it is considered by the Scottish Parliament.
We welcome moves by the Scottish Government to update the Marriage Scotland Act with regard to who may solemnise marriages, to address concerns over celebrants profiteering from the conduct of marriages and to take further steps to prevent sham marriages. We note that there is to be a further consultation on the qualifying requirements which should apply to religious and belief bodies which are authorised to solemnise marriages. However we are concerned that the proposed changes will not apply to the Church of Scotland whose ministers solemnise more marriages than any other Church. All other Churches along with other Religious and Belief Bodies will need to reapply to be authorized to conduct marriages but this will not apply to the Church of Scotland. We cannot understand why there is to be this fundamental inequality in how this matter is handled.
1. Church’s View of Marriage
The United Free Church has always had a ‘high view’ of marriage and would regard it as ‘the voluntary union for life of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others’. This position was reaffirmed by our General Assembly of 2012 which stated that ‘marriage is the union of one man and one woman.’ Marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. The Christian understanding of Marriage, as is traditionally stated in the Marriage ceremony, is that ‘it is appointed for the well-being of human society, which ‘can be strong and happy only where the marriage bond is held in honour’.
Indeed, we find that marriage has been universally embraced by diverse societies and cultures from the beginning of the human race as the union between a man and a woman and this has proved to be beneficial not only to the individuals in the union, but to their wider families and to society as a whole. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights affirms that marriage is between a man and a woman.
2. Concern over the Proposed Changes
In the light of the above, the United Free Church of Scotland is opposed to the introduction of Same-Sex Marriage in Scotland. The changes being proposed in this Bill are not only inconsistent with Christian teaching but also go against many centuries of tradition in this country and around the world. The Scottish Government’s proposals would fundamentally change our understanding of marriage in our Scottish society as an institution with defined functions and social purposes and diminish it to being merely an individual’s right or entitlement. Once this precedent is established, marriage would then be subject to reappraisal, review and further change as minority groups seek “equality” for their own views and positions.
We should make clear that we accept the right of same sex couples to enter into partnerships recognised by the State and this has been possible for some years through the provision of Civil Partnerships. As a result, we do not consider same-sex marriage to be an ‘equality’ issue since same-sex couples in Civil Partnerships have all the rights of married couples. This seems to be confirmed in section 9 of the Bill, which refers to two civil partners changing their relationship by marrying. There is reference in the ‘Policy Memorandum’ page 17, paragraph 105 to ‘civil partners (who) change their relationship to a marriage through administrative procedures’. It goes on to state ‘The intention is that the effect would be the same as if the civil partners had changed their relationship by undergoing a marriage ceremony’. Such couples would be ‘treated as having been married since they registered their civil partnership’. This confirms that the legal status of those in Civil Partnerships is the same as those who are married.
In the light of the above, we cannot understand why the Scottish Government (and the UK Government) has chosen to proceed with such contentious legislation and the inevitable upset and division which such legislation causes when it will not change the legal status of same-sex couples who are in Civil Partnerships.
3. Concerns over Freedom of Speech
The United Free Church welcomes Section 14 of the Bill dealing with Freedom of Speech in which it is made clear that the Scottish Government is committed to upholding and protecting human rights across society. It is confirmed that the Bill does not intend to affect the exercise of the right in the European Convention of Human Rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; of the right in the European Convention of Human Rights to freedom of expression;of any equivalent right conferred by the rule of law.
However, as with any legislation, it will ultimately be for the Courts to decide on cases which are brought before them in the light of this Bill and no Parliament can give guarantees on what the outcome of such cases will be. We have become aware that in England, the Essex Chronicle of 2nd August 2013 carried a report with the headline ‘Gay dads set to sue over Church same-sex marriage opt-out’. It went on to quote the two men saying ‘The only way forward for us now is to make a challenge in the courts against the church’. Sadly such cases are likely to become more common in Scotland as well as England if this Bill goes ahead. We appreciate that efforts have been made in the legislation to safeguard the position of clergy and others connected with Churches. However it is clear that there can be no guarantees about the efficacy of these safeguards and it remains to be seen what transpires when such matters are challenged in Court.
If this legislation goes ahead then we are not convinced there are adequate safeguards being put in place to safeguard the position of those who do not agree with the introduction of same-sex marriage. This includes not only many people connected with Churches of different denominations, but people of other Faiths and of none. However, our greater concern is over the impact the proposed legislation could have on Christians (and others) who are teachers, social workers etc where the Bill states that no additional safeguards will be introduced. The following was agreed at the United Free Church of Scotland General Assembly 2013:
[pullquote]“The General Assembly urge the Scottish Government to recognise the deeply held religious commitments on the issue of same-sex marriage and therefore to guarantee an adequate protection for freedom of speech and belief to protect the religious conscience of those particularly in teaching and social work with regard to local authorities; and more generally, so that people should not be disciplined for simply expressing their belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.”[/pullquote]
4. Definition of Marriage
a. The United Free Church of Scotland shares the concerns raised by the Faculty of Advocates in their response to the Consultation on the proposed legislation in March 2013. As we have indicated above, Marriage has not required a definition previously because there has been a historical consensus about its meaning. However, if this legislation goes ahead, the lack of a definition is likely to cause difficulties within the legal system and confusion in society. We are concerned that in the Bill no attempt is made to define what will be meant by ‘Marriage’ if this legislation is approved. There is also a need for clarification on the difference between ‘Marriage’ and ‘Civil Partnership’.
Whilst the United Free Church of Scotland welcomes some aspects of this legislation, we are fundamentally opposed to the introduction of Same-Sex Marriage in Scotland and consider this to be an unnecessary piece of legislation since Civil Partnerships have been in existence for a number of years. We also have concerns over consequences for Freedom of Speech and over the lack of a definition of what will be meant by Marriage in future.
20th August 2013