Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has insisted her faith is a private matter that has nothing to do with her new job.
In a newspaper interview, Ms Kelly rejects suggestions she should break off links with such controversial groups as the hard-line Catholic organisation Opus Dei, with which she has been linked since being promoted to the Cabinet. The sect is portrayed as a sinister cult in the best-selling book The Da Vinci Code.
Responding to a question on whether she should avoid such groups, she told the Daily Mirror: “No. It is not relevant to my job. I am in politics because I have a strong belief in the equal worth of every child.”
Ms Kelly, who was promoted in the wake of David Blunkett’s resignation, said: “I have a private spiritual life and I have a faith. It is a private spiritual life and I don’t think it is relevant to my job. I am here as a Catholic.”
Ms Kelly defended her “deeply held faith”, insisting: “I don’t see why it should be an issue at all.”
At 36, she is the youngest woman ever to sit in the Cabinet, having risen swiftly after becoming an MP in 1997, despite having four children.
Nevertheless, her links with Opus Dei, which is Latin for Work of God, have made her appointment as Education Secretary controversial.
There have been suggestions that Ms Kelly’s religious beliefs could influence the way she does her job. Critics fear it could affect her stance on sex education programmes, particularly where the distribution of condoms is concerned. But Ms Kelly said: “We have an established government policy on that. I came here to do a job which is about raising standards in schools.
“I passionately believe we have a responsibility as a society to put children first.”
Ms Kelly vowed to press ahead with plans for more foundation schools, with greater financial independence, despite misgivings among some Labour backbenchers.
“Every school should have the chance to manage its own assets,” she said.