You can't oppose discrimination 'a bit', churches are reminded

By staff writers
January 25, 2007

As government ministers last night (24 January 2007) made it clear that they would not bow to strong pressure from Catholic and Anglican leaders who wish to retain the right for church-sponsored adoption services to refuse lesbian and gay couples, Harriet Harman, Minister for Justice at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, has reminded churches that it is not possible to be “a bit opposed to discrimination”.

Ms Harman, a QC, MP and former UK Solicitor General, made the comment in an interview which appears today (25 January 2007) in the News Statesman magazine. Ms Harman is bidding for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, and she has been backed by US Catholic politician Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to have run for national office in the USA as the nominee of a major party – the Democrats.

The Equality Act, due to come into effect in England, Wales and Scotland in April 2007, outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexual orientation – bringing the law into line with existing provisions against racial, gender, religious and other forms of discrimination.

Catholic leaders say that church teaching would prevent its agencies placing children with homosexuals and that they will close their adoption services, which benefit many vulnerable people, if they are bound by the rules.

The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York have given backing to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, who two days ago wrote a letter to the Prime minister and the cabinet. Critics say the Catholic view amounts to “blackmail”.

Westminster insiders add that the church leaders’ stance – which has been opposed by other Christians, including the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement – is backfiring politically, and making the church look morally compromised.

Writing in a recent newspaper article, Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, says: “In pushing for legal equality in a public provision, the supporters of sexual orientation regulations are not asking the Catholic Church to change its teaching on sexuality, even if many would like to see it do so. They are asking church agencies which work with and for a wider public not to seek to impose their own restrictions on non-adherents. Either that, or to consider opting out of provision which they are not willing to make universal.”

Of the Cardinal's warning, he adds: “To many outside the church, such attitudes will seem more than odd and distasteful. They will seem un-Christian. Threatening to close adoption services because of a prejudice now widely questioned or rejected by eminent theologians and others … comes across as distinctly short-sighted, not to mention heartless.”

Downing Street says that claims that Tony Blair, himself an active Christian, is about to back down on the issue are “nonsense”. Interim options are being considered, including a period of adaptation for Catholic agencies and a mandatory referral system. But many cabinet ministers are said to be anxious about any scheme which continues to perpetuate second class citizens in the provision of public services.

Last night the BBC was saying the cabinet was divided on its response, but this morning the Today programme reported that the government seemed minded to reject church pleas for an exemption.

Meanwhile, Catholic journalist Madeleine Bunting, briefly director of the think-tank Demos and now back working as a commentator, says that the Church has got itself into a moral mess over the gay adoption issue.

In today’s Guardian newspaper, she writes: “The moral authority of the churches has been decisively compromised over the past 30 years - a combination of declining numbers and issues such as convictions for paedophilia - with the result that there is less public inclination to cut them some slack and accommodate their scruples: to sample the levels of hostility towards the Catholic church, and the cardinal in particular, just take a look at the vociferous blogs focusing on this row in the past few days.”

Bunting continues: “Meanwhile, it looks as if once more the churches have picked the wrong fight for the wrong reasons. It does them no favours to be back in the headlines - yet again - over the sexual behaviour of a minority of the population.”

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