Consultation has closed on the Scottish Government's same-sex marriage paper, and I would not be the least surprised if it has produced a larger response than any other such exercise undertaken by the Holyrood ministers, even the one ahead of the smoking ban.
Inevitably the subject has proved divisive, sometimes even within individual churches. That apart, the debate has often taken on a "faith v secular" flavour. That tends to put the churches at a disadvantage, as it leaves them open to attack as seeking to impose their doctrines on non-believers. However there is more to the debate than that. We should not underestimate the scale of the social change that has taken place in the last decade or two in relation to recognition of sexual orientation, or the cultural shift required, as compared with before that period, for the Government's suggested extension of the concept of marriage to be accepted as the norm. Although the arguments tended to become polarised, those who believe that the traditional view enshrines values important to the wellbeing of society should not be too lightly dismissed.
Amidst all the heat generated, it was welcome to read the Scottish Human Rights Commission's submission on the consultation, published just ahead of the deadline. Not surprisingly, the Commission backs the proposed liberalisation of the law. Nevertheless it recognises that, legally speaking, this is not a foregone conclusion. While pointing to the recognition by the European Court of Human Rights of the "right to family life" of same-sex couples, and to the number of states that have chosen to recognise "marriage" in this context (as opposed to an equivalent but separate status such as civil partnership), it also accepts that the court has declined to rule that there is an obligation on contracting states to grant same-sex couples access to marriage, having found that this falls within the margin of appreciation allowed.
The Commission adds: "It should be recognised that the question of same-sex marriage also engages social and cultural aspects. The ability to marry is something that heterosexual couples living in Scotland enjoy while homosexual couples do not. Marriage has a unique and fundamental position in society. The current level of debate in relation to this consultation highlights how much social and cultural importance is attached to the perception of marriage as a social institution."
While the Commission is clear that the creation of a separate institution for same-sex couples is liable to hinder the "promotion of human dignity and inclusion within social and cultural norms in Scotland", and that the distinction "should not be justified in a modern Scottish society", its recognition of the depth to which the issue runs for many people probably does more to advance the cause of fair debate of the subject than a more strident view would have done. Whatever the outcome, one side or other is liable to feel marginalised, and given the motives behind the consultation, we should strive to minimise that effect. Personally I would like to see MSPs allowed a free vote on the subject, and not be asked to follow a party line.
Finally, it has been reported that a lot of submissions were received from outside Scotland following a campaign to drum up support for reform. Will that influence the outcome? How would an SNP administration justify that? There could be further interesting questions to come from this issue yet.