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More than 4,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the Catholic Church, and not taxpayers, pay the cost of Pope Benedict XVI's planned visit to the United Kingdom later this year. The action was sparked in par, by a papal speech earlier this week criticizing pro-gay equality legislation in the U.K., The Times of London reports.
"The taxpayer in this country is going to be faced with a bill of PS20 million for the visit of the pope, a visit in which he has already indicated that he will attack equal rights and promote discrimination," said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, which has organized the petition.
On Monday the pope confirmed that he would be making the first papal trip to the U.K. since 1982. In making the announcement to 35 English and Welsh bishops who were visiting Rome, he criticized a proposed law that would consolidate into one law more than 40 years of antidiscrimination reforms. The proposal would remove the ability of churches and schools to use religious freedom as an argument against hiring gay and transgendered people.
"Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society," he said. "Yet ... 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.
"In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed."
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell said the pope's comments were a direct attack on equal rights for gay people. "His ill-informed claim that our equality law undermines religious freedom suggests that he supports the right of churches to discriminate in accordance with their religious ethos," Tatchell said. "He seems to be defending discrimination by religious institutions and demanding that they should be above the law."