The UK government‚Äôs Communities secretary, Ruth Kelly, is being accused of trying to water down new anti-discrimination laws to let Catholic adoption agencies turn away lesbian and gay couples ‚Äì says a report in the Independent on Sunday newspaper.
Ms Kelly, who is a member of the controversial Opus Dei movement, is at the centre of a full-scale cabinet row over the new gay rights laws, the IoS claims. It says she was forced to postpone a formal letter setting out the exemption late last week because of opposition by her senior colleagues.
Critics say Ms Kelly remains determined to include a loophole for her church in the Equality Act 2006 which comes into force in April 2007. But a spokeswoman for her ministry, which has overall responsibility for equality, said she wanted to "protect the pool of prospective parents" and would be trying to find a "pragmatic way forward".
Catholic Church leaders in England and Wales have threatened to close their seven adoption agencies rather than comply with laws that forbid them to discriminate against gay couples.
Ms Kelly, already at the centre of controversy after admitting sending her son to private school earlier this month, insists she is acting in the best interests of the thousands of children placed for adoption each year.
She is said to have the backing of Prime Minister Tony Blair, an Anglican with close ties to Catholicism through his wife, Cherie Booth. But overall cabinet opinion is in favour of refusing exemptions for publicly funded services, believing they should be open to all.
Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Education, refused Mr Blair's request to grant the exemption when he was responsible for the issue in 2006.
Same-sex adoption was made legal in England and Wales in 2002 but Catholic agencies were allowed to turn away gay couples on the grounds that they were not married, reports the Independent.
Of the 2,900 children put up for adoption last year, the agencies placed around 4 per cent. But they found homes for around a third of the "difficult-to-place" children. Ms Kelly argues it is these children that would suffer if Catholic couples were no longer encouraged to adopt by church-run agencies.
Gay campaigners argue, however, that gay parents are themselves more likely to adopt the most vulnerable children and nothing should be done to bar them from the system.
The Roman Catholic Church‚Äôs official position is that the homosexual ‚Äúcondition‚Äù is ‚Äúgravely disordered‚Äù and that homosexual genital acts are a sin.
Ms Kelly has always sought to distinguish her personal faith from her government role, and has declined to answer questions about the teaching of the Church in this area ‚Äì which many Catholics, lay and ordained, question.
A conference on Faith and Homophobia, especially looking at public regulation and equalities issues, has been organised next month by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. It takes place in London on 17 February 2007, and is co-sponsored by the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia.