Criticism of Kate Forbes’ views on equal marriage, transgender rights and sex outside marriage has nothing to do with faith but is about her suitability to lead the Scottish National party, according Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney.
Swinney – himself a committed Christian and one of the party’s most respected figures – told BBC Radio Scotland that he “profoundly disagreed” with Forbes, a member of the socially conservative, evangelical Free Church of Scotland. She told reporters she would not have voted for the SNP’s equal marriage legislation had she been an MSP at the time, hours after launching her campaign to replace Nicola Sturgeon on Monday.
“It’s been unhelpful that the debate has been focused on the question of faith because in my view, it’s got nothing to do with faith,” Swinney said.
“Kate is perfectly entitled to express her views. The party members are equally entitled to decide if someone who holds those views will be an appropriate individual to be SNP leader and first minister. So we can’t really have any complaints about the democratic airing and resolution of this question.”
Swinney’s comments were later echoed by another senior party figure, former Westminster leader Ian Blackford, who said “Everyone who wants to stand for office has to have an appreciation of where Scotland stands.”
Blackford, who is also a member of the Free Church, was criticised by his church for voting to legalise abortion and equal marriage in Northern Ireland.
Some supporters of the finance secretary, who has been on maternity leave since last July, suggested that criticisms were motivated by misogyny or religious intolerance. But others cautioned against shutting down legitimate scrutiny.
After a “bruising” first 48 hours, Forbes was understood to be taking a step back from media engagements on Wednesday but said to remain committed to seeing through the campaign.
Perthshire MSP Jim Fairlie, who continues to support Forbes, issued a statement citing “appalling”, “abusive” and “intolerant” online responses, and stating that her honesty – “despite how difficult it was making her campaign” – indicated she was “the right person to lead our party and our country to independence”.
The third candidate to put herself forward for the role after the first minister’s unexpected resignation last Wednesday, Ash Regan, made a brief statement to STV, in which she called for “calm” and an end to “all the mudslinging”.
But Green MSP Ross Greer, another committed Christian at Holyrood, said that there had been “plenty of misogyny directed Kate’s way … but we also need to be careful that we aren’t shutting down important and legitimate scrutiny of someone seeking high office”.
“Faith is personal but when you say you’d vote against equal rights because of your faith, it’s clearly a matter of public interest and you should expect to be scrutinised for it.”
On Monday and Tuesday, Forbes undertook a series of interviews in which she was probed at length on her faith-informed views, outlining positions that left many of her own supporters as well as LGBT+ members aghast, prompting a number of her most prominent backers to distance themselves from her campaign.
Forbes said that having children outside marriage would be “wrong, according to my faith”, that freedom of practice for faith groups should be “defended” in Holyrood’s proposed ban on conversion practices and that she believes a trans woman is a “biological male who identifies as a woman”.
Humza Yousaf, Forbes’ leadership rival and frontrunner, suggested her views might not fit his “progressive vision” and prominent activists called for her to withdraw from the race.
On Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for Yousaf told the Courier: “Kate Forbes is a very competent and able individual. All governments operate on collective responsibility. That will be the case whoever wins this leadership contest. Humza’s vision for the future government of Scotland is a progressive one.”
Yousaf – a practising Muslim who has said “I don’t legislate on the basis of my faith”, said on Monday that he would like Forbes to be a part of his cabinet should he become first minister.
The SNP’s policy convener, Tony Giuliano, said it was time for Forbes to consider withdrawing from the race.
“Who gains from this? I don’t think Kate, the party or the cause gain from any of this. Because these questions will continue to dominate the next five weeks, overshadowing everything else, including our drive for independence. And they would dominate a future general election campaign, too. Perhaps it’s now time to consider withdrawing from the race and prevent further damage to the party and the cause,” he said.