The Scottish government has announced plans to legalize gay marriage by 2015, possibly making it the first part of the UK to legalize such unions.

The move comes after the SNP government held a consultation on the issue in which nearly 80,000 people participated.

“We are committed to a Scotland that is fair and equal and that is why we intend to proceed with plans to allow same-sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships,” Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's deputy first minister, is quoted as saying by the BBC. “We believe that this is the right thing to do.”

“The Scottish government has already made clear that no religious body will be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages and we reiterate that today. Such protection is provided under existing equality laws.”

“However, our view is that to give certainly on protection for individual celebrants taking a different view from a religious body that does agree to conduct same-sex marriages, an amendment will be required to the UK Equality Act,” she added.

The Catholic Church in Scotland strongly criticized the move, saying the government was “embarking on a dangerous social experiment on a massive scale.”

“We strongly suspect that time will show the Church to have been completely correct in explaining that same-sex sexual relationships are detrimental to any love expressed within profound friendships,” a spokesman for the church said.

Scotland currently recognizes the relationships of gay and lesbian couples with civil partnerships.

Britain and Wales are also debating the issue.