On equal marriage Northern Ireland drifts behind as Scotland advances

Last night at Holyrood the Scottish Parliament voted 98 votes to 15 in favour of stage 1 of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. It is a clear majority supporting the progress going forward and there are only 5 others who abstained plus one current vacancy (as a result of the death Cowdenbeath MSP Helen Eadie). So the chances of later stages being derailed are slim.

The Scottish Bill is more consulted on than that of the one that went through the House of Commons and is quite clear on both individual and religious freedom, which made some of the anti comments during last night’s debate seem redundant. That fact that it does enable faith groups that want to carry out same-sex marriage to do so, while protecting the rights of those that don’t is a sign of true religious freedom.

Unlike in the previous two debates in Northern Ireland where we have had to rely on a 100% heterosexual chamber from debating this issue, in Holyrood as in Westminster there were personal recollections, of what it means to grow up LGBT in Scotland.

The Conservative leader in Scotland Ruth Davidson was the first, and drew on what it meant to be seen as different:

Last year, the University of Cambridge conducted a huge body of research called “The School Report”. The researchers spoke to hundreds of LGBT pupils from across the UK who were open about their sexuality. The majority said that they were the victims of homophobic bullying and that it happened to them in their schools. More than half of the respondents deliberately self-harmed. Nearly a quarter had attempted to take their own life on at least one occasion.

These are our children and they are made to feel so much guilt, shame and despair. We have an opportunity today to make it better for them. At the moment, we tell these young people, “You are good enough to serve in our armed forces. You are good enough to care in our hospitals. You are good enough to teach in our schools. But you are not good enough to marry the person you love and who loves you in return.” We tell them that they are something different, something less, something other, and that the dream and gold standard of marriage does not apply to them. They do not get to have it. That apartheid message, that “same but different” or alien quality, and that otherness is reflected in every hurtful comment, slander, exclusion and abuse, whether it takes place in the school playground, on the factory floor, or in the local pub.

Marco Biagi (who won the Edinburgh Central seat, I sought selection for, in 2011) said:

It will not come as a surprise to anyone that, when I was young and my classmates started to notice girls, I started to notice boys. I was afraid. I looked at our society and I did not see myself looking back, whether in our institutions, such as marriage, in what was regarded in public debate at the time as good and moral, or even in how our society portrayed itself in fiction, in which any representation of same-sex attraction made the subject matter adult, to be ranked alongside pornography and violence. When all that I saw or knew of gay people was Julian Clary, Kenneth Williams or Graham Norton, I—a boy from a chip shop in Dunbartonshire—did not see myself. I could only conclude that I was different from normal and that what I was was less deserving as a result.

Today, this chamber can add a new tile to the great interlocking mosaic of our society that has been built up steadily, one piece at a time, since the Wolfenden report of 1957. Same-sex marriage will not be the last piece to be added to that mosaic. The bill is not the finished article, not least for the transgendered, but today we can further build a picture of our society that generations of young people to come can look at and see themselves in.

He went on to reveal something else he and me had in common:

If we were to vote down the bill, who would we be to say that the understanding of the sacrament of marriage held by other faiths that do not share that view should be allowed and the views of the Quakers and Unitarians should be forbidden unless we somehow believed that same-sex relationships were intrinsically different, wrong and worthy of legal prescription?

I cannot bring myself to believe that any member subscribes to that view, but I will tell members a secret: I did once. The shame of those days has now given way to a shame that I fought those feelings for such a long time. Sadly, I know too many who still fight them—people young and old whose lives are a daily denial. I do not have to imagine how it feels to live like that because I remember it.

The Green MSP Patrick Harvie talked about the nonsense of some of the arguments against the bill:

Members might be a little surprised that my personal circumstances place me in what I regard as impeccably neutral territory on the issue: I am single, I am bisexual, I have no idea whether I will have a long-term relationship with a man or a woman in future and I have no idea whether I would want to get married. Certainly, I do not personally regard marriage as a gold standard; I regard it as one of the many options on family status that people will make a choice between on the basis of their values and not the values that we would impose on them.

The arguments that we have heard against the bill have been many and varied. Some have been frankly spurious and silly, such as the one that goes, “Well, you know, you can get married already, just to somebody of the opposite sex.” I cannot believe how frequently I have heard that nonsensical and demeaning argument.

Some arguments have been mischievous. There have been deliberate attempts to whip up ungrounded fears about ministers in the Church of Scotland being dragged off by the police, taken to the courts and prosecuted for refusing to marry same-sex couples.

Some of the arguments against the legislation have simply been curious, such as the view that, from the starting point of religious freedom, the law ought to tell churches who they may not be allowed to marry. It seems to me that the argument for religious freedom must be in favour of what the Government is trying to achieve with the bill, which is to permit but not compel.

Some arguments against the legislation are serious and we should not ignore them—quite the contrary. There has been serious opposition to pretty much every step that has been taken in the equalities story over many generations. Certain voices have opposed every step towards LGBT equality, from decriminalisation onwards. Those serious arguments absolutely must not be ignored but must be confronted and defeated because they assert, whether in religious or other terms, the lesser worth, dignity, status or value of LGBT people and our relationships. Those arguments should and deserve to be defeated. In more than 20 years of volunteering, working or campaigning on many of those issues, I have in all honesty never heard a coherent moral argument in favour of the view that same-sex relationships are of lesser worth or status or that they are morally wrong. I have heard many such arguments rooted in homophobia but none in a coherent moral case.

Sadly of course no Liberal Democrat MSP could speak from personal opinion as Margaret Smith and Iain Smith (not related) both lost their seats in 2011. But Jim Hume did make a good speech, speaking of the Liberal democrats support of this as party policy, and also made a telling comment about those who feared churches facing prosecution:

I emphasise that the religious body must be willing. I know that there are concerns that religious bodies, whatever their denomination, might be forced on human rights grounds to marry people whom they do not want to marry, but I simply do not buy that. I am aware of churches that would not marry opposite-sex couples, for example because the couple were not regular attenders. I know of no case in which such a couple would take a church to court; they would simply go to a church that was happy enough to sanctify their relationship. I cannot envisage a same-sex couple having any joy in taking a religious body to court on human rights grounds. It is worth noting that the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission support the bill.

There is some more passage through stages in Holyrood before this Bill becomes and Act and law but it was a promising start last night. But the fact remains that here in Northern Ireland one party is holding the key to achieving this level of equality. One party that claims that our Britishness is worth protecting above everything else. Yet is denying the LGBT community here just that level of Britishness.

As I mentioned above and as Jim Hume pointed out there are ways to ensure that churches are not forced either in law or through the courts from having to marry people they don’t want to. As Jim Hume points out this already happens in a number of places. Scotland like Northern Ireland and unlike England and Wales does not have a state church that has to marry anyone in the parish that asks. But in bringing about a change in civil marriage it is only equitable that restrictions are also lifted on faith groups, while at the same time not forcing anything on them.

As this debate was called several times during its progress it was a mature debate for a young legislative body. It is a pity that some elements of the somewhat “younger” Northern Ireland assembly seem to act only with immaturity, ignoring facts, public opinion and what is happening in the world at large when it comes to LGBT equality.

On a final note there was a survey of 5,500 people mentioned during the debate that had some interesting findings. Of those who identified as Catholic 55% had not objection to same-sex marriage, of Presbyterians this was 50%, with 21% and 25% opposed respectively. It shows that even in the two big denominations in Scotland there is not a majority against, indeed the opposite. But like in Northern Ireland as we have seen through our representatives and how they vote the Catholic community appear to be slightly ahead of the protestants when it comes to acceptance of the LGBT community, one which of course straddles that divide in Northern Ireland.

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