Kate Forbes has become a victim of “anti-Christian intolerance” and “bigotry”, the conservative church to which the SNP leadership candidate belongs has warned.
The devout Christian was seen as the favourite to replace Nicola Sturgeon when she entered the race on Monday, but her personal views on a range of social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion and having children outside of wedlock have drawn intense scrutiny.
Ms Forbes has said that she had no interest in imposing her personal views on anyone else and that Scotland would be in a “dark and dangerous” place if she was considered “beyond the pale” for following mainstream religious teachings.
However, she has faced mounting calls to quit the race from figures within the SNP, while nationalist parliamentarians have pulled their support.
A spokesperson for the Free Church of Scotland said that Ms Forbes was a “skilful, hard-working and competent MSP” and that her consistency about her beliefs “makes for an honest politician”.
They said: “The issues raised by Kate Forbes’ intention to run as SNP leader have displayed a level of intolerance that we believe is uncharacteristic of the wider ordinary Scottish population.
“It is lamentable that Kate’s honest adherence to simple traditional values would, for some, disqualify her from contributing to the public good of Scotland.
“The Free Church of Scotland is concerned at the level of anti-Christian intolerance which has been displayed on social media, and by some political and media commentators.
“Kate Forbes is standing on the basis of her policies – the fact that she is being criticised for her Christian convictions shows a level of bigotry that has no place in a pluralistic and diverse society.”
Ms Forbes’ religious views had been widely known before she announced her run to become the next First Minister. However, a series of supporters who had endorsed her campaign pulled their backing after she said she would not support gay marriage.
John Swinney, the deputy First Minister, said on Wednesday that he was a man of “deep Christian faith” but “profoundly disagreed” with the views expressed by Ms Forbes.
“It’s got nothing to do with faith,” he said. “There are plenty of churches – the Church of Scotland undertakes same-sex marriage, and I warmly congratulate and complement the Church of Scotland on getting carefully to that position over some years.
“Kate is perfectly entitled to express her views, but party members are equally entitled to decide if someone who holds those views will be an appropriate person to be SNP leader and First Minister.”
The Church of Scotland, Scotland’s national church which is far more moderate than the Free Church of Scotland, said that as “fellow Christians” they supported Ms Forbes’ “right to hold her beliefs”.
A Church spokesman added: “We deplore comments which suggest that holding views because of religion, faith or belief would impair her suitability as a candidate for First Minister.
“Scotland is a diverse, pluralistic society that includes people of many faiths and beliefs and it is right that we seek to treat one another with fairness and respect, especially when we hold a different opinion.
“There is a longstanding tradition of politicians being able to exercise their own conscience on moral issues, where they are given ‘free votes’ rather than have to follow a party line.
“We urge those involved in choosing a potential leader to examine what positive qualities they can contribute, such as a commitment to public service, a willingness to work for the benefit of the country as a whole, and those personal qualities of honesty and integrity which we all expect from those in high office.”