LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Scotland’s bishops have called out the country’s political parties for “removing the of conscience from their parliamentarians on votes involving contentious moral issues.”

The statement from Bishops’ Conference of Scotland comes as a leading candidate for the leadership of the ruling Scottish National Party has come under fire for her Christian beliefs.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, has said she would not have voted for gay marriage and has said having children outside of marriage was “wrong according to [her] faith.”

She is one of three candidates hoping to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland. Sturgeon announced her intention to resign on Feb. 15.

“Although the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are fundamental human rights and an individual’s religion and belief are protected characteristics in equalities legislation, recent events have left many citizens seriously concerned over the negative characterization of religion in civic life. These concerns focus on two interconnected issues: Disqualification from political leadership and the silencing of conscience in general. We share these concerns,” the bishops said in a statement issued on Friday.

The bishops spoke of the Forbes controversy directly, noting that it had been suggested she is unsuited to leading her party and to becoming First Minister because of her religious convictions.

“We feel obliged to restate the well-established civic principle, that holding or expressing religious beliefs and values does not and should not debar any individual from leadership in public office,” the statement said.

“Regarding the silencing of conscience in general, we are particularly troubled by the increasing prevalence of political parties removing the right of conscience from their parliamentarians on votes involving contentious moral issues. Such actions inhibit freedom and are insidiously conformist in nature. They compromise open and honest debate and risk marginalizing minority groups,” the bishops said.

“In the course of Scotland’s civic and political history, the values of freedom of thought, conscience and religion have been hard won and are now recognized as fundamental human rights. At the same time, our recent equalities’ legislation accords religion and belief the status of protected characteristics because they are considered especially vulnerable to discrimination, harassment and victimization,” the statement said.

The bishops quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who warned against a ‘marginalization’ during his 2010 visit to the United Kingdom, when the pontiff lamented ‘a failure to appreciate … the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”

“We echo these sentiments and urge our civic leaders to recognize the dignity of the human person and the right of everyone to participate without discrimination in civic society according to their beliefs and conscience; without this guarantee our society cannot be free nor fair,” the bishops said.

“In that context we advise that such trends inhibit freedom and introduce a blind conformity that goes as far as undermining the foundations of liberal democracy. They close off open and honest debate and risk marginalizing much of Scottish public opinion. In the pursuit of diversity, they risk imposing an unnatural uniformity on our people’s views and their political discourse, while reducing the wider pool of people who might stand for office, potentially denying our nation access to talent and ability.”