In a lecture at Westminster Cathedral on the Catholic Church's future, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has claimed that UK anti-discrimination legislation is being used to limit freedom of religion “in unacceptable ways”.
The outgoing spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales says the state needs to acquire a better understanding of the contribution and place of faith in British society.
He continued: “Legislation on discrimination, much of it good in itself, is now being used to limit freedom of religion in unacceptable ways. The sad and totally needless conflict over the Catholic adoption agencies is one example."
But Christian equalities campaigners and others working against discrimination in employment and the provision of goods and services say that it is church leaders who need to change - recognising that attempts to deny gay people full equality go against both public decency and the Christian message.
In January it was reported that five of 11 Catholic adoption agencies who were refusing to comply with the law on equal treatment for gay couples had now agreed to comply with the law, after an adjustment period. Others are considering their position.
The Church had claimed they would be forced to close, but was accused of threatening closure itself unless it was allowed to discriminate.
The evangelical service agency Faithworks adopted the Sexual Orientation Regulations which the Cardinal and the Catholic hierarchy reject, arguing that irrespective of Christian moral disagreement about homosexuality, churches who receive public money and seek to serve in the public arena need to do so on the basis of fair and equal treatment as Gospel values.
In his lecture, the Cardinal went on to claim that there is "a wider prejudice that sees religious faith as a problem to be contained rather than a social good to be cherished and respected, and which properly and necessarily has a public as well as a private dimension.”
The Cardinal called upon local authorities to give the voluntary sector a “greater and more autonomous” role in the delivery of public services and to see the Church as a “partner in the common good, not an adversary”.
But others say that this is code for allowing discriminatory practices into public services and must be resisted.
Murphy-O’Connor continued: “I think the greatest danger for us at the moment is to let ourselves believe what secular culture wants us to believe about ourselves, namely, that we are becoming less and less influential and are in decline."
“There are certainly challenges and there is much work for us to do. But on the contrary I believe that the Church has a vigorous life, and a crucial role to play in our society - more important than at any other time in our recent history," he added.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, says that refusing equal treatment in the public square and trying to cling on to privilege is the wrong direction for the churches to take, both socially and theologically.
"We now live in a mixed belief society, rather than one dominated by institutional Christianity," he commented. "That may question certain privileges which have existed before, but the removal of these need not be a threat. Rather it is an opportunity to rediscover a more authentic, liberating message and practice; one that has often been obscured or defaced by the collusion of official religion and governing authority."
A video of the Cardinal’s lecture is now online at: http://www.rcdow.org.uk/lectures