NICOLA Sturgeon has said Scotland “is a socially progressive country” amid a row over SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes’s comments on equal marriage.

Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, lost some of her high-profile supporters this week after she said she would not have voted for gay marriage “as a matter of conscience”.

Elsewhere, the MSP said having children outside marriage “would be wrong according to my faith” and is something she would personally “seek to avoid”.

The National: Kate Forbes

Criticism over Forbes’s views has led to debate over the role of religion in politics, with the Free Church accusing some of “anti-Christian intolerance”.

Fellow candidates Humza Yousaf and Ash Regan – who will formally launch her campaign on Friday – have declared their support for same-sex marriage in light of Forbes’s comments.

Regan said she is “proud” same-sex marriage is legal in Scotland, while Yousaf insisted he would not use his Muslim faith as a basis for legislation.

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Sturgeon had vowed to keep out of the race to find her successor, but was asked about Forbes’s comments by the BBC on Wednesday afternoon.

“What kind of a legacy is being left for now given what Kate Forbes has said on progressive politics, and a socially progressive Scotland?” the First Minister was asked.

The SNP chief responded: “Scotland is a socially progressive country and I believe that is majority opinion.

“Whoever is first minister the views that they have on all sorts of issues matter because people look to their first minister to see someone who will stand up for them and their rights and the job of first minister on a daily basis involves responding to things based your positions your values, your outlooks.”

She was also asked about the impact of the row on the SNP – and whether the party was tearing itself apart.

“No, it’s not,” she said.

“It’s having a democratic election so that’s what is happening.

“The candidates are standing for the top job in Scotland. I know what is entailed in that job, I’ve done it for more than eight years and therefore that debate should be respectful, it should be civilised, it should be thoroughly positive.

“But anybody standing to be first minister has to expect that their positions, and their policies, and their outlook on things will be scrutinised. That is in the nature of democracy, and that’s a good thing in democracy. I know all of the candidates standing well and I know they’ll all embrace that.”