Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

Equal Marriage: The real vote of conscience today

by Chris on 4th February 2014

It's time

Today was a historic day for LBGT equality in Scotland and I for one shed a tear as the final vote came. Years of campaigning have led to this change, not just for equal marriage but for the rights, acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people in all spheres of life.

And so equal marriage is set to become a reality. But not for everyone. If, like me, you belong to a religious institution which doesn’t want to opt in, you could be waiting a quite a bit longer. In some churches the day when you will be able to walk down the aisle looks a very long way off. As Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow reminded us moments after the vote, the campaign now moves to churches in Scotland.

More fool me you might say. Go somewhere you’re wanted, not where you’re clearly not. But one of the things that has irked me about the debate at times and the commentary on it, is the implicit assumption that unlike sexuality, religious freedom doesn’t work both ways.

Many going into the debate today who supported the bill, also supported the notion that this was a vote of conscience. But isn’t every vote a vote of conscience? And why in the 21st century should equality for LGBT people be a vote of conscience in a way that simply wouldn’t be tolerated in relation to equality for other groups who have historically faced discrimination?

A number of the 18 MSPs voting against equal marriage today played the vote of conscience card. They were the so called religious opponents of the bill. But what of the religious supporters? What of those who chose to exercise their conscience in a different way, despite or even because of their religious faith?

And what of LGBT people of religious faith? Doesn’t religious freedom cut the other way for them? Unfortunately all too often the assumption remains that in Scotland we have religious people and LGBT people on separate sides of the protest crash barriers. What nonsense. Go to any church of any denomination on any Sunday in Edinburgh and you will find no shortage of LGBT people amongst the congregation.

They don’t walk down the aisle wearing pink triangles; they quietly go about practicing their faith. They don’t look different. You might not be able to spot them at all. But they are there. Not deviant, but moral. Not secular, but faithful. I could go on, but you get the picture. In fact one of things I’ve often wanted to say to leaders in my own religious institution, the Catholic church, is simply this. Have you any idea how ordinary my life is? Have you any idea how similar it is to those you somehow deem to be more normal, more moral than me?

And just in case you’re thinking, okay LGBT people might well be found in those congregations but they’re not accepted, consider this. Yes attitudes to homosexuality have liberalised most amongst those of no religious faith over the last 20 years. But as last year’s British Social Attitudes survey showed, they have liberalised amongst those of religious faith too. In fact, amongst Catholics for example, the proportion of people who think that same sex relations are always or mostly wrong halved from 69% to 35% between 1993 and 2013.

And in Scotland too, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows that over the last decade, the attitudes of those who attend religious services have liberalised. It’s reasonable to point out that attitudes haven’t changed at the same rate as those of the general population. And the more frequent the attendance, the less likely attitudes have changed. But they are, unquestionably, changing.

So as the campaign for equal marriage shifts from the political to the religious domain, it’s worth being clear about a few things. There are religious supporters of equal marriage as well as religious opponents. Many LGBT people are people of faith too. And the attitudes of those who practice religion are a great deal more diverse and changing than the religious establishments in Scotland like to pretend.

The real vote of conscience today was that expressed by 105 MSPs who supported the bill

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