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20 February 2013

Marriage, civil liberties and freedom of speech

Marriage, civil liberties and freedom of speech

Evangelicals across Scotland are being encouraged this month to submit responses to the Scottish government's consultation on the draft Same-Sex Marriage bill which closes on 20 March.

As Westminster continues to debate the fallout from the recent vote on same-sex marriage, attention has now focused on the latest stage of the Scottish government's plans to redefine marriage north of the border. It is a fairly sad by-product of the current constitutional debate that with the referendum looming large Scottish politics has gone fairly quiet with large scale national policy decisions waiting until 2014. While this debate brings remarkable opportunities for Christians to engage with the national conversation (more news to follow from the Evangelical Alliance Scotland soon), in terms of government legislation it means there is very little emanating from the corridors of Holyrood.

The one exception to this is of course the Scottish government's Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill published in December. This bill, in common with its counterpart in Westminster, legislates for the introduction of same-sex marriage and also the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises. It also amends the law of marriage in a number of ways, including proposals for a third category of marriage known as 'belief' to incorporate humanist ceremonies.

The Evangelical Alliance in Scotland has played an active role in the Scotland for Marriage campaign that has sought to campaign against these proposals and we have attempted to share why we believe God's best pattern for society is built on a foundation of marriage as currently defined between a husband and a wife. We are aware of the great sensitivities regarding this issue and our aim has been to articulate this message in a gracious, compassionate and sensitive way while promoting the radical nature of the gospel that is available to all people regardless of background or lifestyle, and where we are all called to repentance and transformation equally before God.

However it is not just the change in the nature of marriage that causes us concern but also the very real concerns that exist around civil liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience if the legislation is enacted. At the moment the Scottish government has agreed with the UK government to amend the Equality Act to provide protection for ministers who do not wish to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies and this is to be welcomed. However, there are no other protections in the draft legislation and without them there is a very real danger of problems mounting up for the Church in the future.

There are concerns as to how far the promised protections for ministers will extend. Will they include marriage preparation, marriage counselling and marriage support services that many churches offer? Or is there a possibility that churches could face prosecution or loss of charitable status if they fail to provide these services 'equally' to same-sex married couples?

Additionally there are wider concerns of free speech and conscience, particularly for those working in the public sector. As part of its work Scotland for Marriage sought a legal opinion from one of the leading human rights lawyers in Scotland and they identified six areas where additional protections may be needed to avert legal challenge (for further information and legal opinion click here).

To their credit the Scottish government have recognised that there are real civil liberties implications to their legislation and published a second consultation along with their bill. This consultation closes on Wednesday, 20 March, and can be found here.

We cannot stress enough the importance of submitting responses to this consultation, particularly from those working in professions that may be affected by this legislation. The Scottish government have said they are keen to hear from as many people as possible and we want to encourage a constructive response from evangelicals across Scotland. It is vital to have grace filled responses from both churches and individuals that contribute in a reasoned way and enable the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to genuinely think through the proposed implications of the legislation.

The consultation can be a difficult document to navigate but one of the Evangelical Alliance's member organisations, CARE for Scotland, has  produced a helpful briefing to assist with this. There will also be an online submission facility appearing in the next week on the Scotland for Marriage website and as always you can contact the Evangelical Alliance Scotland office for any advice or support.

The Evangelical Alliance still hopes that at this late stage the Scottish government will recognise the inherent problems with redefining marriage and more importantly the inherent worth of marriage as the foundational building block for a strong and stable society. Please pray at this time, respond to the consultation and encourage others to do likewise.