Opt-out refusal 'bans church from public life'

London, England - The Government's refusal to allow faith-based adoption agencies to opt out of laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexual couples is the first step in banning the church from public life, the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales warned today.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said the legislation, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, had created a "new kind of morality" and represented a "lack of freedom for religious conviction".

The Cardinal, who last week warned that Catholic adoption agencies would close rather than accept the new rules, insisted the church does not want to discriminate against gay people, but believes that children should be brought up by both a father and a mother.

"It would be a great pity, in my view, if people weren't able to act according to their conscience for the sake of the common good in our country. It would be a lack of freedom for religious conviction," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"In this precise case it is happening: the Catholic church and its adoption services are wishing to act according to its principles and conscience and the Government are saying 'no, we won't allow you to - you have no space, you have no place in the public life of this country'.

"That seems to me to be just one step and there would be further ones."

He said there "may well be" a way for Catholic agencies to continue their work without breaking the law but insisted it was not the church that was threatening to close them down, but the public authorities who are partly responsible for funding them.

The Prime Minister announced last night that there would be "no exemptions" to the gay adoption legislation.

Faith-based agencies will have a 21-month transition period to comply, during which time they can continue to refer gay couples seeking to adopt to other agencies. The new rules will come into force at the end of 2008.

The Cardinal added: "Some legislation, however well intended, does create a new kind of morality, a new kind of norm, as this does.

"We are having a new norm for what marriage is because I think that normally children should be brought up by a father and a mother and we hold that that's extremely important. The Government has a right to legislate... but we want to hold on to this principle.

"I don't see why the Catholic community and its agencies cannot hold to its principles, continue its marvellous work for children.

"The Catholic church does not want to discriminate against gay people. They should be held in respect and sensitivity. This is something much more in our convictions - not so much about gay people as about marriage."

The church wanted to continue a "respectful co-operation in which we both act with confidence and integrity and both want the common good" with the Government, he said.

The Equality Act, due to come into effect in England, Wales and Scotland in April, outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexual orientation.