The row over Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O‚ÄôConnor‚Äôs letter to the Prime Minister and Cabinet ‚Äì which says that his church‚Äôs adoption agencies will close if an exemption from equalities rules about lesbian and gay adoptees is not granted ‚Äì showed no sign of dissipating today.
The Church of England has backed Catholic concerns. And the PM is reported to be considering his options. But a leading secularist group says that Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly is not fit for her post because of her membership of an ‚Äúextreme sect‚Äù, Opus Dei.
Tony Blair has yet to decide whether to exempt the Catholic Church from the new laws on adoption by gay couples, a spokesperson said yesterday ‚Äì describing as ‚Äúexaggeration‚Äù claims that Ms Kelly was negotiating such an arrangement.
The prime minister is said to be trying to find a solution to the adoption row that "addresses the different concerns" of both the Catholic Church and what the government termed ‚Äúgay rights groups‚Äù, Downing Street declared.
A statement said: "He's looking for a way through that recognises and tries to address the different concerns on both sides. There is no point pretending that there are simple answers to these questions. There aren't."
One option being considered is a statutory referral system, though it is understood that the Cardinal is minded to reject this, regarding it as little more than an arrangement of convenience. Critics say Mt Blair is ‚Äúwavering‚Äù under ‚Äúunacceptable pressure‚Äù.
Meanwhile the Cardinal spent the day hotly denying that his position was a ‚Äúthreat‚Äù or ‚Äúblackmail‚Äù, after politicians, including the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, said that public services should be universal and not hedged in by exemptions.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religious think tank Ekklesia observed: ‚ÄúCatholic adoption agencies receive public money through fees, and the new legislation says that they should be usable by all sections of the community. Most people will see that as a reasonable position. The Cardinal says that it would be a tragedy if Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close. But others will argue that it is the Church which is threatening to close them, and that it is thereby putting its own position about a minority of cases above the needs of vulnerable people.‚Äù
Labour MP Angela Eagle and Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris have both suggested the Catholic leader‚Äôs comments were akin to blackmail.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said yesterday: ‚ÄúThe Catholic Church has been exerting enormous pressure on Ms Kelly‚Ä¶ It raises questions about just who is in charge of her department ‚Äì Ms Kelly or the Catholic bishops.‚Äù
He continued: ‚ÄúThe Northern Ireland version of the regulations, which came into effect on 1 January, were approved by large majorities in the House of Lords and the Commons. If these exemptions are made for the regulations that apply to England, Wales and Scotland, the Northern Ireland version will have to be watered down too. The Scottish Parliament has only recently legalised adoption by gay couples, and if these exemptions were made they would effectively over-rule that law, potentially causing another constitutional crisis.‚Äù
The National Secular Society believes that Ms Kelly‚Äôs affiliations are incompatible with her public office, and others have spoken of a ‚Äúconflict of interests‚Äù such as apply in other spheres, like business and commerce.
Mr Porteous Wood added: ‚ÄúWhen she was appointed, Ruth Kelly assured us that her attachment to an extreme Catholic religious sect ‚Äì whose stated aim is to recruit people in influential positions to promote its agenda ‚Äì would not affect the way she ran her department. She promised equality for all. We now know that her adherence to Opus Dei is completely incompatible with her job in a government department that promises to protect people from the very discrimination the Catholic Church wants to practise.‚Äù
But the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, in a letter of their own, responded: ‚ÄúIt would be deeply regrettable if in seeking, quite properly, better to defend the rights of a particular group not to be discriminated against, a climate were to be created in which, for example, some feel free to argue that members of the government are not fit to hold public office on the grounds of their faith affiliation. This is hardly evidence of a balanced and reasonable public debate.‚Äù
Others are saying that the issue is not faith affiliation per se, but membership of a particular group which operates in a covert way.