How has it come about that, when it comes to choosing a leader of a political party, a politician’s views on same-sex marriage seem to be a deal-breaker? The controversy caused by Kate Forbes, once front runner for leadership of the Scottish National Party (SNP), saying she believed that “marriage is between a man and a woman” did not come out of a clear blue sky. It has deep roots and prompts an important discussion about religious belief and politics.
It is worth recalling the initial slow change in social attitudes after July 1967 when the bill decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults over 21 was given royal assent. The bill at the time excluded Scotland, Northern Ireland and the armed forces. And there were setbacks such as Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 banning in 1987 ‘the promotion of homosexuality’ in schools.
Government provision of civil partnerships in 2004 and the 2010 Equalities Act summarising and simplifying previous anti-discrimination law were major landmarks in achieving equal right for people in same sex relationships. The compatibility of religious belief and practice with the Equalities Act is normally established in the calm and clarity of a courtroom. But since Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation and the instant withdrawal of prominent Forbes supporters, sexuality issues have been manipulated politically in the media by partisan contestants for her position as leader of the SNP. As a result, the ensuing debate has been reduced to clashes on the frontline of the culture war between ‘woke’ and ‘reactionary’ belligerents. Calm and clarity are not the first words that come to mind.
Sexual ethics have played a significant role in religious education in the past and still do. People with religious beliefs can hardly complain that issues of sexuality are newsworthy, it is a perennial interest and people of goodwill passionately disagree about it. But does that mean holding socially conservative views based on religious belief should automatically exclude people from high political office? The Equalities Act was intended to protect the rights of minorities whose sexual identities differ from the majority but also to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Here are some observations which try to put the problem in historical context. We now inhabit an ethical terrain in which the terms human rights and civil rights have proliferated unhelpfully in popular usage. They have come to trump other ways of talking about and legislating what is the right thing to do. Not everything we might reasonably hope for in a democratic society is a human right or even a civil right.
Campaigning for gay rights was about the removal of discrimination. A success was Tony Blair’s 2004 legislation creating civil partnerships in the UK affording same-sex partnerships the civil rights equal to those of heterosexual marriage. In later legal tidying up, the provisions of the 2004 Act became available to those in heterosexual relationships who, for one reason or another, (because of the patriarchal connotations of traditional marriage) did not wish to be married.
Peter Tatchell’s successful campaign for same-sex marriage used the brilliant slogan “Equal Love” and was rewarded by the 2013 Same-Sex Couples Act that did away with State prohibition of same-sex civil marriage. The 2013 Act gave recognition to the equal value of same-sex love and thus to the human dignity of the couples in same-sex relationships felt to have been inadequately expressed by the initially special minority provision called civil partnership. But religious organisations were not obliged to religiously marry same sex partners. It was not a human right.
The 2004 and then 2013 Acts, subject to the permission of Local Authorities, enabled religious organisations to register marital relationships and perform same-sex marriages as well as civil partnerships. The latter was a major change in the concept of marriage. No longer an exclusively heterosexual institution it became a challenge to traditional Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinking and scripture on marriage, a change in both definition and meaning. It inevitably was, and is, profoundly divisive.
The concept of ‘equal love’ is a mainstay of Christian theology and in February 2023 the Church of England General Synod voted to allow priests to bless same sex marriage and civil partnerships. The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), though, described it as “schismatic and unbiblical behaviour”. Alongside the no less conservative leaders of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) the GSFA represents over 70% of the Anglican Communion round the world, mainly provinces in the southern hemisphere. Heaven above knows what they would call approval of the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
So we come to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the undeniably courageous Kate Forbes speaking openly about what her Christian - ‘Wee Free’ Presbyterian – beliefs demand. In interviews she has described how she would vote according to her conscience but honour the present and future democratic will even if she personally disagreed with it. A window into her soul best kept closed? Refreshing openness and truthfulness in a politician or foolish candour? Forbes does not have the good fortune to be a German politician. In 2017 the then Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed a free vote on the same-sex marriage Act, voted against it herself, and when resigning four years later enjoyed 80% approval. Throw in a little misogyny and Forbes may have forfeited the role of first Minister to Humza Yousaf who has contrived to miss voting on such issues.
Can Scotland trust Kate Forbes to honour the democratic will? The most compelling argument made against her is that whatever she now says no-one can be sure that as First Minister her strong Christian principles wouldn’t later unacceptably influence her policy judgements. Acceptance depends on trusting her word. Strange then that her truth-telling should be distrusted but a serial offender against truth, the untrustworthy Boris Johnson, was elected leader of the Conservative Party and remained popular even when the threat of a Corbyn government receded.
We live in a democracy. Those who are unwilling to set aside a candidate’s religious views are free not to vote for them. But the question remains do views on sexuality influence political judgement more strongly than other views? After all, socially conservative views on sexuality do not imply or mean conservative views on all other social and political issues. For example, views on climate change, inequality, defence, health and social care need probing before a candidate is judged either way. Again, why is this minority position on sexuality a deal-breaker? Is this about making faith a private matter, excluding religion from public debate?
Forget woke and not woke. It is time to step back, reject the social media lynch mob, and start listening to each other. Writing in The Observer 26 February Kenan Malik’s proposes that in a secular democracy strong religious views can be safely compatible with the top job in, say, the Treasury and Foreign Office but problematic for a Party leader responsible for the totality of policy. Pure conjecture of course but interesting. Yet when we reach a point where someone convicted of raping two women, described as a ‘transgender woman’, is sent to an all-female prison for assessment, it is arguable that Scotland needs someone running the SNP with some old-fashioned ideas, or at least some common sense.
The first leadership debate on STV on 7 March will have been an opportunity for participants to listen to religious views and treat them with respect. In the words of the Scottish Catholic Bishops “religion is not a problem for legislators to solve but instead makes its own vital contribution to the national conversation”.