Scottish National Party leadership hopeful Kate Forbes has said she feels "greatly burdened" that offence had been caused by her views on gay marriage.
Forbes returned from maternity leave early to announce her bid to replace Nicola Sturgeon, joining health secretary Humza Yousaf and former community safety minister Ash Regan in the running.
The three candidates' most recent debate saw the issue of equal marriage raised after Forbes previously commented she would have voted against gay marriage if she was an MSP at the time.
Yousaf said he thought religion should not be the basis for legislation or policy.
"People need to know that the person who is first minister is not just going to protect their rights, but advance them," he said, highlighting that he believed equality was under attack and describing himself as "unashamedly progressive".
Forbes claimed religion would not influence how she leads the party, despite previously commenting she would not have voted in favour of equal marriage - something she was pressed on several times by debate moderator Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
"I have given my honest and solemn pledge to uphold the legal protections that are in place for every Scot," she said, facing backlash from Yousaf who claimed she was merely "tolerating" people rather than championing them.
Forbes had previously attempted to address her gay marriage comments with a post on her social media accounts.
In a statement posted on Twitter and Facebook, she said: "I feel greatly burdened that some of my responses to questions in the media have caused hurt, which was never my intention as I sought to answer questions clearly.
"I will defend to the hilt the right of everybody in Scotland, particularly minorities, to live and to live without fear or harassment in a pluralistic and tolerant society."
She said she believed in the "inherent dignity of each human being" and that underpins all the decisions she makes.
The finance secretary was previously asked on BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme if her campaign was over before it had begun.
She said: “Absolutely not. We have a large party membership, most of whom are not on Twitter.
“I understand people have very strong views on these matters. I think the public are longing for politicians to answer straight questions with straight answers and that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do in the media yesterday. That doesn’t necessarily allow for much nuance.
“My position on these matters is that I will defend to the hilt everybody’s rights in a pluralistic and tolerant society, to live and to love free of harassment and fear.”
Forbes also told Sky News her faith meant she considered sex outside of marriage to be wrong.
The issues have raised questions over whether her membership of the Free Church of Scotland, known as the Wee Frees, would inform her agenda.
What is the 'Wee Free' church?
Forbes is a member of the Free Church of Scotland (the FSC, otherwise known as the Wee Frees), which is known for its conservative views on gay marriage and reproductive rights. The evangelical, Calvinist church says "everything from our patterns of worship to our church structures seeks to reflect clear Biblical teaching".
According to the church's website, there are around 100 FSC congregations around Scotland, with about 13,000 of Scotland's 5.4 million residents worshipping with the Wee Frees.
Unlike many churches in Scotland, the FSC encourages its members to be active participants in bringing the gospel to everyone in Scotland and the wider world.
The self-described modern, gospel church has not shied away from sharing its views on abortion and gay marriage, with then-FSC moderator reverend David Robertson comparing abortion to slavery in 2015.
"Today we look with horror at how “civilised” society could acquiesce in and support the evil of slavery," he said. "In the future, I believe we will look back with horror at the way that society, despite our increased scientific knowledge about the status of the child in the womb, has acquiesced in the evil of abortion."
After the Scottish Episcopal Church voted in favour of redefining its definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, Robertson wrote in an op-ed that the decision should be "mourned".
"I have discussed many times the biblical position on marriage – summed up simply in the teaching of Jesus that marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. "For any who profess to be his followers, to turn away from that teaching, is something to be mourned and not celebrated."
Religion in politics
Forbes is not the first SNP politician to belong to the FSC. Most notably, the SNP's former Westminster leader Ian Blackford was a member of the Wee Frees.
However, his membership was called into question by the church itself after he voted in favour of same sex marriage and reproductive rights in Northern Ireland in 2019.
At the time, the FSC suggested it considered fining Blackford over his vote, with former moderator Robertson suggesting Blackford was "putting forward an elitist ‘progressivist’ agenda which will be the death of Scotland", adding: "You have put us, at best, on the road to nowhere, at worst it is a highway to Hell".
Blackford's local church eventually sought a private meeting with him over his stance, which he publicly defended.
Although it is unclear how much her religious beliefs would inform any future leadership position, Forbes' status as a religious politician saw her comment at a prayer breakfast in 2018 that a “measure of true progress” is how unborn children are treated.
She was also among the SNP politicians who wanted a delay in the vote on Scotland's Gender Recognition Bill, and her declaration to run for leader has prompted some LGBT+ party members and allies to raise questions about how she will tackle such issues going forward.
Forbes has previously defended any potential conflict between her faith and her politics, saying: "I make my own decisions on the basis of what decision is right and wrong, according to my faith, not according to the diktat of any church.”
According to the National, nor does Forbes adhere to her church's "Westminster Confession", the ultra strict doctrine that, among things, labels the Roman Catholic Pope "the anti-Christ".
What is Forbes' background?
Forbes, 32, has been an MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch since 2016, and was re-elected to the post in May 2021, also holding the position of Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy.
Her election campaign highlighted the gender pay gap in the Highlands, and she later took a lead on stressing the importance of the Gaelic language.
A graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, Forbes became the first woman to deliver the Scottish budget in 2020 after then-finance secretary Derek MacKay resigned.
Less than two weeks after her successful handling of the budget, she took over MacKay's role, and later became the first woman in the Scottish Parliament to go on maternity leave — returning earlier than expected to announce her bid for party leader.