Church accused of getting its facts wrong on faith-based welfare

By staff writers
31 Jan 2007

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society (NSS), has claimed that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, is making false claims about the impact of the government’s refusal to exempt the Church from anti-discrimination legislation.

NSS also says that the adoption issue shows that churches are making a bid to be above the law which raises serious questions about their fitness to run public services. His view is in contrast to Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, who says that the issue is about what limits the state accepts, if any, on its ability to determine the actions of voluntary bodies.

In a statement released yesterday (30 January 2007) Mr Porteous Wood said: “The Cardinal claimed that the government was stopping the Church from continuing with its adoption agencies. This is simply not true. They can continue, but without public money. What the Cardinal is demanding is that the government continue to subsidise discrimination in a way that will be against the law for everyone else and that the vast majority of the public — including many Catholics in the pews — find abhorrent.”

He continued: “They are demanding that they be given taxpayers’ money to act in a way that parliament forbids, simply because they consider it is against their ‘conscience’. What the Cardinal calls ‘conscience’, others would call ‘bigotry’. And if they are not allowed to do just as they please, they have once more made threats to withdraw charitable services under their control.”

Echoing claims that the Catholic Church, backed by three of the four most senior clerics in the Church of England, may be seeing its tactics seriously backfire in the ongoing debate about public provision, Mr Porteous Wood added: “The Cardinal could not have demonstrated to the nation more clearly the danger of handing over welfare to religious bodies.”

He said: “This saga should be a wake up call to the Government on faith-based welfare, which is slated to be a massive growth area under both New Labour and the Conservatives. If the churches are happy to openly blackmail the government on this issue, when there are only a few small adoption agencies involved, imagine the pressure religious bodies will be able to exert when they have a significant proportion of the welfare system under their control.”

The National Secular Society also questions the logic of the Church’s position on the details of adoption. “The Cardinal is keen to say how important the ‘complementarity’ of heterosexuals are to be parents, but what he declines to say is that even if gay parents were available, and the best parents available, he would prefer the children were left in care. Archbishop of Birmingham Vincent Nichols [has] admitted that Catholic adoption agencies sometimes select gay single parent adopters… if such a single foster parent entered into a civil partnership, and formed a potentially stable relationship, she or he would [presumably] have to give up the child back into care.”

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, responding to the government’s offer of a 21-month adaptation period for Catholic agencies, but no exemption, said: “What we’d most want to do is to disentangle two things. There’s a particular issue on which the Catholic Church has taken a stand, as other Christians have; and there’s a general issue about the rights of the state and the rights of conscience especially in voluntary bodies. That second question is one that, I think, is by no means restricted to this issue.”

He continued: “I would like to see some more serious debate now about that particular question – what are the limits, if there are limits, to the state’s power to control and determine the actions of voluntary bodies within it, in pursuit of what are quite proper goals of non-discrimination.”

According to Catholic leaders, the refusal of the government to allow an exemption from Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) due to be implemented in April 2007 amounts to discrimination against religion. But Mr Porteous Wood takes a very different view.

He said: “Claims by the Cardinal that religion is being disadvantaged in this country are patently ridiculous. Churches receive hundreds of millions of pounds of state money each year; have representation in the House of Lords as of right; run a third of the education system; have hundreds of representatives in hospitals, armed forces, colleges and prisons paid from the public purse; and receive huge tax advantages, such as VAT concessions and tax subsidies on collections. How any faith leader can argue that they are disadvantaged is beyond me. What they object to is being required to follow the same anti-discrimination requirement as everyone else.”

Some other faith groups have taken a different view of the adoption row. Yesterday the evangelical Faithworks movement, itself a significant service provider, reiterated its support for legislation outlawing discrimination against lesbian and gay people, saying that fair provision in the public arena was distinct from the approval or disapproval of particular lifestyles by religious or other bodies. It said that the rights of those receiving state-supported services came ahead of the demands of those providing them.

Alastair McBay, of the National Secular Society in Scotland, observed in today's Herald newspaper: " This is not just a battle between secular and religious doctrine. Credit is due to the many religious believers in the pews and in the denominational hierarchies who have courageously spoken out against the stand their leaders are taking, and who will be dismissive of calls from them to vote as instructed come election time. This is as much a battle for conscience within the faiths, as between the faiths and the secular world."

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