THE SNP's candidate for the forthcoming Glasgow North-East by-election has confirmed he is a member of the controversial Catholic organisation Opus Dei, but argued that his religious beliefs should not be a factor in the forthcoming poll.
Former BBC journalist David Kerr, chosen as the party's candidate on Friday, said it was "preposterous and deeply prejudiced" to argue that somebody of his religious beliefs should be "debarred" from running for public office. He said his religious views were now an "open book".
Opus Dei, made famous by Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, has earned a controversial tag over its alleged secretiveness, with critics accusing it of being a form of Catholic Freemasonry.
Translated as "Work of God", members are encouraged to live out the Church's teaching through their professional work, in whatever form that takes. The organisation is a strong advocate of Catholic moral values on issues such as abortion and contraception.
A National Secular Society spokesman said: "The concern for voters would be that such a person would have their allegiance to the Church and not to the SNP. It is one thing to bring your religious beliefs to politics, but it is another to bring the dogmas of a right-wing Catholic organisation. That would be the worry for voters."
Kerr was finally selected as the SNP candidate following a protracted process that saw two other candidates pull out, one following claims over his finances. Kerr faces a huge Labour majority in the seat, left vacant by the decision of former Speaker Michael Martin to stand down.
"I have always been open about my faith and the fact that I am a practising Catholic. I don't think that should debar somebody from running for public office. It seems a suggestion that is preposterous and deeply prejudiced. The question was never asked about Michael Martin.
"This area has been served by Catholics for generations. Their ability to represent has never been called into question." Asked about his views on abortion, he said: "I'm not here to talk about theology. The Catholic Church's view is well known."
Kerr called on Labour to call the by-election immediately so it could be held at the beginning of August. Labour has indicated that it plans to wait until November to hold the vote.
However, Scotland on Sunday can reveal that senior Labour figures are taking soundings this weekend to call the election immediately.
Deputy leader Harriet Harman and general secretary Ray Collins are holding discussions within the party with a view to calling the by-election later this week.
They believe that with the Nationalist campaign having got off to a rocky start, following the departure of its first two candidates, there is an opportunity to seize the moment. A party spokesman said yesterday that no decision had been taken, but that Labour "had a short campaign in the bag ready to go".
Martin stood down in June, following the MPs' expenses affair. Labour will have to decide the by-election date by Tuesday, when the House of Commons rises for the summer.
If Labour were to press ahead this week, the by-election would have to take place within 21 days. If it were held on a Thursday, that would mean the latest date would be 6 August, when the schools are still on holiday.
(Press reports such as these are reporduced here because of their reference to Freemasonry (explicit or not) and for no other reason - Ed.)