National Affairs Rory Leishman

National Affairs Rory Leishman

Thanks to a draconian new Equality Act that comes into effect in England, Wales and Scotland in April, faithful British Christians are about to undergo much the same persecution as their Canadian counterparts.

The act includes a sweeping ban on discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.” In a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and members of his cabinet on Jan. 22, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, urged the government to exempt Catholic adoption agencies from the new regulation.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor underlined that the Catholic church “utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual and teaches that they must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Given that the Catholic church also upholds marriage and the natural family as best for children, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor insisted: “We believe it would be unreasonable, unnecessary and unjust discrimination against Catholics” to force employees of Catholic adoption agencies to provide adoption services to same-sex couples in violation of “the teaching of the church and their own consciences.”

On this point, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor got solid backing from the two most senior clerics in the Church of England – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. In a joint letter to Blair on Jan. 23, Williams and Sentamu emphasized: “The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.” And they pointedly added: “It is vitally important that the interests of vulnerable children are not relegated to suit any political interest.”

Quite so. It’s regrettable that Williams and Sentamu stopped just short of joining Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor in affirming what the church has traditionally taught and a wealth of social science data has confirmed: that children thrive best under the care and guidance of a mother and father who are joined in the bond of marriage.

Initially, Blair seemed sympathetic to the pleas of England’s most prominent clerics to respect the rights of conscience. The same cannot be said for opposition leader David Cameron and most members of Blair’s cabinet, including its leading Catholic member, Home Secretary John Reid. In a recent speech, Reid argued that no faith-based groups should be exempt from the newly proclaimed equality rights for homosexuals. By analogy, he said: “If somebody says to me: ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to treat women as equal because my religion does not allow it,” I say: ‘Tough, you’re in Britain and that’s a fundamental value in Britain and everyone has to accept it.’”

Under pressure from Reid, Cameron and others, Blair caved in. On Jan. 30, he announced that after a transition period, Catholic adoption agencies will be required by law to treat same-sex couples the same as a husband and wife.

In response, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor has threatened to shut down Catholic adoption agencies in England and Wales. Meanwhile, the archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, has vowed that Scottish adoption agencies will defy the new regulation on the ground that it violates the rights of Catholics to freedom of conscience in the Equality Act.

It will be interesting to see how British courts deal with Conti’s argument. In Canada, the courts have consistently held that equality rights for homosexuals trump the religious rights of Christians that are supposedly guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The row over adoption agencies signals just the beginning of a campaign against religious freedom in Britain. A spokesman for the Scottish Catholic bishops has pointed out that the Equality Act “will impact on anyone who provides goods and services, from the priest who refuses to hire the parish hall to a same-sex couple, to the editor of a Catholic newspaper who refuses to carry a gay pride advert or a printer who refuses to print those adverts – they will all be criminalized by this draconian measure. This is as close as you can get to a thought crime.”

It’s scandalous that politicians like Reid are leading this attack on their fellow Christians. It’s high time church leaders in Britain and Canada took tougher action to defend the faithful, by telling these rogue Christian politicians that they are no longer welcome at Communion.