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Religious leaders
ask for exemption from new pro-gay British law

Religious leaders
ask for exemption from new pro-gay British law

Anglican and Roman Catholic Church leaders joined forces on Wednesday in London in a battle to be excused from new British antidiscrimination laws they say would force Catholic adoption agencies to place children with gay couples. In what is becoming a fierce battle between church and state, the leader of the world's 77 million Anglicans, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, backed the United Kingdom's leading Catholic cardinal in urging Prime Minister Tony Blair to exempt Catholic adoption agencies from the new law. In a joint letter with Archbishop of York John Sentamu, Williams told Blair, "The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning." The letter piles pressure on Blair, who commentators say is leaning toward the church's view but who would face a fierce backlash from within his party if he allowed an exemption. Late on Wednesday, Channel 4 news reported that Blair had given in to the pressure from his own lawmakers to reject the exemption. But a spokesman for his Downing Street office said no decision had been reached. "There is no change in the position," he told Reuters. "The prime minister is still looking for a pragmatic way forward and will continue to consult with important stakeholders in an attempt to resolve the issue." Williams's intervention came just hours after Blair was sent a strongly worded letter by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, saying Catholic adoption agencies would face "serious difficulty" adhering to the law and may be forced to close. "We believe it would be unreasonable, unnecessary, and unjust discrimination against Catholics for the government to insist...Catholic adoption agencies must act against the teaching of the Church and their own consciences," he wrote. The 12 Catholic adoption agencies in England and Wales handle about one third of all voluntary-sector adoptions. Murphy-O'Connor said it would be a tragedy if the legislation forced their closure, adding that if this happened, some 4,000 children awaiting adoption may be at a disadvantage. Gay rights activists and secularists accused the cardinal of bowing to Vatican pressure and holding the government to ransom. Officials with the National Secular Society said the row over the Equality Act, which is due to take effect in April and outlaws discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities, and services, is "a major conflict between where the rights of the church end and democracy begins." "Religious bodies have a big and regressive agenda, everything from abortion to stem cell research and voluntary euthanasia," said the group's executive director, Keith Porteous Wood, in a prepared statement. "If the government caves in on this, it will set a dangerous precedent." According to British media, Blair and his communities minister, Ruth Kelly, a prominent Catholic, are reported to be in favor of an opt-out that would allow Catholic adoption services to turn away gay couples. But he is likely to face fierce opposition from within his own Labor Party and cabinet if he appears to be giving in to church demands. (Reuters)

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