Equality Regulations: Catholic Blackmail Must Not Be Allowed To Succeed

Catholic pressure being applied to the Government over the new gay rights law was condemned by the National Secular Society as "straightforward blackmail that risks undermining democracy".

The letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, threatening to close down Catholic adoption agencies if the Church is not exempted from the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations is the latest example of the Church's attempts to have its doctrines written into law.

Terry Sanderson, President of the NSS, said that "what the Catholic Church is demanding is completely out of step with the mood of the country, which is now happy to give equal rights and dignity to its gay citizens. But even many Catholics don't agree with what the Church is doing, given the falling attendance at Mass - barely half of what it was in 1980.

"This has now become a major conflict between the secular democratic Government and the Church's ambitions to regain the power that it once exerted over society. The Government must not agree to these opt-outs," said Mr Sanderson, "To give in to such blatant manipulation would open the door to never-ending demands from the churches for their doctrines to be given special privileges in law-making. If we value our democracy, we must not permit any minority interest group to force its agenda on to everyone by blackmailing the Government in this way."

"The weak and vulnerable are going to be the losers from the cardinal's blatant bid for temporal power. If he wins, homosexuals will not be afforded the same dignity and human rights as everyone else. If he loses, it will be the vulnerable in the care of his Church who he seems shamelessly prepared to cast aside."

"The Society wrote yesterday to Ruth Kelly seeking to be informed as to whether the Government plans to concede any additional religious exemptions to those contained in the equivalent Northern Ireland Regulations which do not contain the opt out Cardinal O'Connor is seeking. We have also sought assurance that anti-harassment provisions would be included."

Mr Sanderson added "The Church is now flexing its muscles following its success in forcing the Government to abandon admission quotas into faith schools. If the Church registers another success with these regulations, we can expect to see it coming back soon with a raft of other demands, from restrictions on abortion to the banning of stem cell research. The Government must put a stop to this now or we will be entitled to ask: who is running this country - the Government or the Vatican?

"Broadly similar legislation, the Equal Status Act 2000, has been operating in the Republic of Ireland for over five years without any problem, and without, we are advised, any exemption for religious adoption agencies."