Roman Catholic adoptions agencies yesterday lost their battle to opt out of new laws banning discrimination against homosexual couples when Tony Blair announced that there would be “no exemptions” for faith-based groups.
The Prime Minister said in a statement that the new rules would not come into force until the end of 2008. Until then there would be a “statutory duty” for religious agencies to refer gay couples to other agencies.
Earlier, David Cameron risked a split with Tory traditionalists by announcing that he was against allowing Catholic adoption agencies to opt out of new laws banning discrimination against gay couples. He called for a compromise that would give the Catholic agencies time to find a way of dealing with the regulations — possibly by developing twinning arrangements with other adoption services.
Last week the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, warned that the agencies would close rather than accept rules that required them to hand over babies to gay couples.
Last night, the Roman Catholic Church expressed its “deep disappointment” with the decision but the cardinal issued a conciliatory statement saying there was now an “urgent task” to reach a “new consensus” over how the rights of religious organisations could be upheld.
He hinted that a face-saving compromise might still be worked out to preserve the Catholic adoption agencies in some form.
Downing Street said Mr Blair’s statement reflected the Government’s position and Labour MPs — unlike Conservative members — would not be given a free vote when the new regulations were put before Parliament next month.
Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, a prominent Catholic who had been pressing for an exemption for the Church, said the announcement was a “breakthrough” that should be “welcomed by everyone”.
But the decision that Catholic agencies — which say they have a religious objection to placing children with gay couples — must fall into line is a defeat for both Miss Kelly and the Prime Minister.
Their attempt to secure an opt-out for the Catholic Church had caused a deep rift in the Cabinet, with senior ministers, including John Reid, Lord Falconer, Alan Johnson and Peter Hain, insisting that there must be no exemptions.
Mr Blair said he believed that ministers had found a “way through” that prevented discrimination and protected children’s interests, which all “reasonable people” would be able to accept.
There was “no place in society for discrimination”, and he supported the right of gay couples to apply to adopt.
“And that way there can be no exemptions for faith-based adoption agencies offering public-funded services from regulations that prevent discrimination.”
The regulations under the Equality Act, which forbid schools, businesses and other agencies from refusing services to people on the grounds of sexual orientation, would be brought forward by the Government “shortly”.
Mr Blair said there would be a transitional period before the new rules came fully into force at the end of 2008 for existing adoption agencies. During this period, it would be a statutory duty for any adoption agency that did not process applications from same-sex couples to refer them to another agency.
Miss Kelly said the approach represented “a positive breakthrough in eliminating discrimination” while recognising the need for a practical approach that ensured the most vulnerable children were found loving homes.
“We now have a workable solution,” she said. “At the end of the day, we all know that there is a wide range of potential adoptive parents out there, including lesbians and gay men, who can provide a loving home for children.”
Mr Johnson said the announcement was the right outcome for all concerned because it put the interests of children first. “We reject discrimination in all its forms, particularly when that deprives our most vulnerable children of a stable, loving and secure home,” he said.
Mr Cameron’s backing for gay adoptions puts him at odds with his shadow home secretary, David Davis, who has said he would “almost definitely” vote for an exemption for the Catholic agencies. The Tory leader promised his MPs a free vote, saying it was an issue of conscience.
Mr Cameron told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I shall vote for the regulations because it is right to have clear rules against discrimination.”
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said in his statement: “We are, of course, deeply disappointed that no exemption will be granted to our agencies on the grounds of widely-held religious conviction and conscience.
“We note and welcome, however, the Government’s desire that the excellent work of our agencies is not lost.”