Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill sparks religious opposition
Scotland’s reform bill that makes gender recognition easier was not only vetoed by the UK government but also opposed by religious groups.
In December 2022, the Scottish Parliament approved the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which would make it easier for people to legally change their gender. Transgender rights campaigners had wanted to change Scotland’s gender laws to simplify the legal recognition process for transgender individuals, leading the Scottish government to propose a simpler and less distressing process. The bill’s reforms included cutting the age limit for applications from 18 to 16, dropping the requirement for medical reports, and reducing the time required for applicants to live in their identified gender from two years to three months.
In January 2023, the UK government vetoed the bill, marking the first time in Scotland’s history the government has exercised such power. Echoing women’s rights campaigners, the government argued that the bill could pose a threat to the safety of women and girls across the UK, by making it easier for predatory men to access single-sex spaces, such as public bathrooms. The government also pushed back that the power to govern equality is set by Westminster.
The religious opposition to Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill
This clash over Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill in the UK has not been limited to campaigners and parliaments. It has also notably involved religious groups, which argue that gender should be determined by biological sex at birth and that allowing individuals to change their legal gender undermines traditional ideas about gender and family. Michael Veitch, the Parliamentary Officer for the Christian charity CARE for Scotland, for example, argued that the bill goes against the biblical belief outlined in Genesis 1:27 that people are born male or female as ordained by God. Acknowledging the Scottish members of parliament who voted against the bill, he encouraged everyone to persist in prayer.
The Scottish Bishops’ Conference and the Scottish Catholic Church also expressed the same concerns, with the latter adding that like the Church, the majority of the public was uncomfortable with the measure. Despite its opposition, the Scottish Bishops’ Conference did call for approaching people seeking to legally change with compassion and providing them with special care and support in the face of difficulties and emotional distress. The Church of Scotland, however, did support government plans to make it easier for people to legally change their gender. While giving evidence to the Scottish parliament before the bill was proposed, the Church supported removing the requirement for medical reports. It, however, remained divided over lowering the minimum age from 18 to 16.
The high stakes of reform bills for religious institutions
This opposition to Scotland’s gender bill comes amidst opposition to other proposed legislations. The opposition reveals the existential stakes for religious institutions. They are arguably also worried about the criminalisation of their churches as well as their congregations. For example, in responding to a ban on conversion therapy, the Scottish Bishops’ Conference claimed that such a law could criminalise priests giving advice in good faith and also Christian parents acting on such advice. They also warned that the proposed law would outlaw wider pastoral care, and the Church could lose its charitable status as a result. A similar fear is arguably driving religious opposition to Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill. This suggests a wider conflict is also at play between religious and political institutions in Scotland (and the UK), over whether to publicly restrict and roll back religious beliefs, practices, and institutions or the diverse identities and rights emerging from within the wider public.