The Gay Marriage Debate: John Mason MSP Interview

On Friday 2 September, the Scottish Government’s Consultation on same-sex marriage was launched. The Skinny caught up with SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, John Mason, to discuss the process

Feature | 27 Sep 2011
  • Gay Marraige

On the day that the Scottish Government’s Consultation on same-sex marriage was launched, a British newspaper ran the headline ‘Scotland First to Have Gay Marriage Imposed,’ on their front page. In reference to that headline, Mason admitted he hadn’t yet seen it but that it was probably misleading. “I don’t think ‘imposed’ is the right word. That’s what a lot of the debate’s been about. Is this just something that’s going to happen and be available to people or will this be something that really everyone has to sign up to? I assume, especially for the churches, that this will be an issue.”

John Mason tabled a motion regarding the same-sex marriage debate, which asked that 'no person or organisation should be forced to be involved in or to approve of same-sex marriage.' After an outcry, Patrick Harvie, Green regional MSP for Glasgow, suggested an amendment to the motion that emphasised the importance of allowing same-sex couples to have equal rights. Harvie has urged the SNP not to get “sidetracked” by Mason’s arguments.

On 31 August, the National Union of Students' LGBT Campaign had a small protest outside Mason’s new constituency office, to coincide with its opening. Mason referred to the protest as ‘very civilised and peaceful’. He went out and spoke to the protesters for a while. Mason expressed a desire, to The Skinny, to have a longer meeting with the group at some point in the future.

Mason worries that one of the side effects of equality legislation like this is that the place of religion in society would be minimised. “Churches should not be forced to be involved in gay marriage,” he says.
Jeff Duncan, a gay rights activist, wrote to every MSP as a response to Mason’s motion asking them to support gay and lesbian Scots. This prompted Bill Walker, SNP MSP for Dunfermline, who supported Mason’s motion, to compare the “pro-homosexual lobby” to the pre-war Nazis.

Tensions are thus running a little high. Walker was unavailable to talk to The Skinny but Mason was happy to explain his stance in a little more depth.

“Within the churches there’s a whole range of views and I know that within the gay community there’s a whole range of views as to how you take things forward and how, well, aggressive people are and that applies to both the Christian lobby groups and the gay lobby groups as well."

While Mason is opposed to the Church and state having too close a relationship, or the Church having an undue influence, he recognises that some members of the Christian community are worried that religious freedoms are being sacrificed in the fight for equality.

He says, “I passionately believe that everyone is of equal value and nobody’s rights should be trumping anyone else’s.”

When the Equality Bill was passed in 2009 Mason made sure that religious freedoms were protected. The changes he helped facilitate meant that religious organisations were exempt from certain aspects of the legislation.

One of the contentions surrounding the debate is over whether organisations can refuse to marry a same-sex couple on religious grounds and what would happen if they were to do so. While it’s unlikely that a same-sex couple would want to be married somewhere they clearly were not wanted, as Mason says, “Law that depends on someone’s good will is not good law.”

The problem is that there may be places where there is only one registrar (such as the smaller islands in the North West) and if that person decides to opt out on the basis of religious conscience then in effect a same-sex couple would be unable to get married in their own community. Surely it’s the responsibility of the local registrar to officiate any marriage, whether they “approve” of it or not?

The significance of the approval (or disapproval) of a few local registrars is worth fighting over. There are some religious organisations that want to be able to perform same-sex marriages – the Quakers for instance – and there are some who have been quite clear on their stance against it. At base, some religions do explicitly state that homosexual practise is against the tenets of their faith. As Mason says:
“When it comes to sexual behaviour or activity, that’s when some of the religions do have something to say, as to whether you can have one or more partners, of the same sex or not of the same sex and that sort of thing. I would draw a distinction personally, and a lot of the churches would draw a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual activity.”

The Skinny then asked whether it would be all right if same-sex couples who were celibate married, but Mason did not think that the definition of marriage included those who are celibate. He referred to an unconsummated marriage being grounds for divorce; unfortunately this position does not leave much room for compromise. While Mason says that he himself is “relaxed” about same-sex marriage, the whole conversation raises a lot of questions about how both sides can move forward in this debate.
If you’re interested in exploring this issue further, the consultation document is
available to read and download at this address (www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/09/05153328/0) – anyone is free to respond to it, either as an individual or as an organisation, within the consultation period of fourteen weeks.

Correction: The protest outside Mr Mason's constituency office on 31 August was organised by the NUS LGBT Campaign and not by the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) as originally stated in this article. The article has been amended accordingly