The argument over Pope Benedict's comments about equalities legislation continued last night, with the government seeking to minimise the impact of his remarks and campaigners condemning his intervention as inaccurate and inappropriate.
The diplomatic row occurrs in the run-up to a proposed state visit by the Pontiff, the details of which are still being kept guarded.
What has angered both reformers within the Church and campaigners on equalities issues, is that Pope Benedict issued his comments in an ostensibly spiritual address to the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, while effectively exercising his authority as representative of the Vatican City state as far as the import of a specific political issue is concerned.
In the key passage of an address delivered by the Pope on 1 February 2010, Benedict declared: "Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs."
However supporters of the Equality Bill, including both faith and secular groups gathered under the umbrella of the Cutting Edge Consortium, say that far from limiting religious freedom, it would have the effect of extending equal treatment to those working for the churches and religious agencies.
Church of England bishops, 26 of whom have automatic positions in the UK's unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, voted recently to help defeat provisions that would have limited their own ability to discriminate in matters of employment and the provision of goods and services.
The Bill has still to go through a further report stage and back to the House of Commons (which is democratically elected), but campaigners believe that the legislative timetable relating to the impending General Election will limit options for further change - and now the government has indicated that it will not seek to reverse the amendments.
Meanwhile, the Pope is being accused of meddling in the affairs of another state, and of misinformed partisanship.
The government chose to pick up on his positive comment rather than the criticisms. A Government Equalities Office press statement declared: “The Pope acknowledges our country’s firm commitment to equality for all members of society. We believe everyone should have a fair chance in life and not be discriminated against. The Equality Bill will make Britain a fairer and more equal place.”
The Pope also said in his letter that the Equality Bill contravenes ‘natural law’ and is unfair to Christians who do not agree that homosexuality is part of God’s natural order.
But last night the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement rejected the Pontiff's comments and reaffirmed its own commitment to equality and fairness for all, both inside and outside of the churches and other faith-based organisations.
Chief executive the Rev Sharon Ferguson said: “In criticising British Government legislation the Pope is speaking about matters outside of the reach of core Catholic doctrine, and misunderstanding the issues at stake."
She continued: "Benedict is showing that he and the leadership of the Catholic Church have failed to engage with the experiences of the people which the Equality Bill seeks to protect and which a rigid unyielding interpretation of Scripture and tradition continues to do violence to.
"Furthermore, the concern about being forced to ordain gay Bishops highlights the extent of the institutional homophobia as all Catholic clergy are required to take a vow of celibacy which makes sexual orientation irrelevant.“
Equalities advisors point out that media scare stories about the Bill 'forcing' certain requirements for ordination or consecration to Holy Office are in any case wrong and misleading.