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20/11/2013 17:18 GMT | Updated 20/11/2013 17:50 GMT

Same-Sex Marriage Bill Passes Key Hurdle In Scottish Parliament

The first key hurdle in implementing a law that would legalise same-sex marriage in Scotland has passed the Scottish Parliament, with MSPs backing a change in principle by a huge majority of 95-15.

The vote followed a rancorous debate, highlighting the controversial nature of the legislation with a small but vocal number of politicians, including members of the SNP, opposing the law, arguing that the rights of faith groups were ill-recognised in the bill and that the definition of marriage was not a matter with which the state should tamper.

One Labour MSP even said it had been suggested to her that she be burned at the stake as a witch for voicing her opposition to the bill. However, the Health Secretary Alex Neil struck a more representative tone, arguing: "In a country that aspires to be an equal and tolerant society, this is the right thing to do."

Neil added: "It is encouraging we have secured the support of Parliament at stage one of the Bill and that we have agreed the general principles. It is an important step on the journey but we will continue to work closely with the Parliament as the Bill goes forward."

The minister said that safeguards have been built in to the law, adding that the terms of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill allow religious bodies to opt in to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

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Alex Neil MSP speaking during Stage One of the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill

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Politicians were given the opportunity to vote freely, not having to toe any party line. Among those voting No were Scottish Government ministers Roseanna Cunningham and Fergus Ewing, joined by four SNP backbenchers, eight Conservatives and one Labour MSP.

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, in a highly personal speech in favour of the Bill, spoke of her experience growing up as a gay woman denied the opportunity to marry. "I don't want the next generation of young gay people growing up, as I did, believing that marriage is something they can never have," she said.

"We have the opportunity with this Bill to change that, and to change the attitudes and even the stigma that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can still evoke and which can cause so much harm."

Young gay people are made to face guilt and shame, she told MSPs. "At the moment we tell them you're good enough to serve in our armed forces; you're good enough to care in our hospitals; you're good enough to teach in our schools, but you're not good enough to marry the person you love and who loves you in return," she said.

"We tell them you're something different, something less, something other and that marriage, that dream, that gold standard, that does not apply to you - you don't get to have that."

Labour MSP Elaine Smith spoke strongly against the Bill, and was the only one from her party to vote No. "Since indicating that I did not intend to support the redefinition of marriage, my religion has been disparaged, I have been branded homophobic and bigoted, I have been likened to the Ku Klux Klan, and it was suggested that I be burnt at the stake as a witch," she said.

Questioning the strength of safeguards in the legislation, she said: "MSPs have a responsibility to ensure that to the best of their ability they are not introducing legislation with consequences, albeit perhaps unintended, that will negatively impact on society. I hope that MSPs have not been bounced into voting yes for fear of being branded homophobic, because they signed a pledge, or because they have not reflected on all of the arguments presented to the Government or the committee."

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But her party colleague Jackie Ballie commended the Scottish Government for taking forward the Bill. "For many of us, this is about how we see ourselves as a nation and how others see us - about the values that we hold and whether Scotland is indeed a confident, progressive nation where equality is truly valued," she said.

Three Labour MSPs abstained - Hanzala Malik, Michael McMahon and Siobhan McMahon. SNP member John Mason voted against the Bill, warning that Parliament is "not reflecting public opinion". He said: "I do not seek to impose Christian values on what is an increasingly secular society, neither do I seek to restrict rights of anyone in society. "I do seek equality for each person in society, but I remain unconvinced by the assurances given, and therefore I will vote against the Bill."

His SNP colleague Marco Biagi drew on personal experience, saying he could only conclude he was "different" and "less deserving" when he was growing up. "When I came out, it was the time I stopped looking at those around me and wishing I was the same as them, and instead started to wish I had the same rights as them," he said.

Green leader Patrick Harvie said he is in "impeccably neutral territory" on the issue. "I'm single, I'm bisexual, I've no idea whether I'll have a long term relationship with a man or a woman in the future and I've no idea whether I would want to get married," he said.

Harvie dismissed some of the arguments against the legislation as spurious, silly, mischievous or curious, but warned against ignoring other "serious" arguments. "They should be confronted and defeated because they assert, whether they do so in religious terms or any other, they assert basically the lesser worth, the lesser dignity, the lesser status or the lesser value of LGBT people and our relationships," he said.

"These arguments are serious and should be defeated, they deserve to be defeated." Lib Dem Jim Hume said: "Today's vote was a big step forward for equality and a move towards the fairer Scotland that we all want to see."

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Ruth Davidson gave a personal speech about her experience growing up as a gay woman

Tom French, of campaign group the Equality Network, said: "This vote is a huge step forward which will send out a strong message that LGBT people are equal and valued members of our society. While there is still more work to do to improve the bill and ensure it becomes law, LGBT people across the country will be celebrating this significant milestone in the journey towards full equality."

Rev Dr Alan Hamilton, from the Church of Scotland, said marriage is between one man and one woman. "Until any future General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decides otherwise, that remains our position," he said. "But our commitment to care for all people, gay and straight is no less. We stand against homophobia.

"We also recognise that there is a widespread public opinion about whether legalising same sex marriage is the right thing, and that spread of public opinion is reflected among members of our congregations across the country. One thing is very clear and that is there is not unanimous support for this legislation in Scotland.

"As the Bill progresses through Holyrood, the Church of Scotland will continue to be a constructive voice in the national debate about it. We would also seek robust and detailed legal assurances and protection for those who do not wish to conduct same sex marriages as a matter of conscience. The Church is conducting a wide-ranging review of marriage but there are no plans on the table for the Church to stop conducting marriages."