THE Archbishops of Canterbury and York back the Roman Catholic Church’s appeal to be exempted from a law requiring agencies to consider gay couples as adoptive parents. “The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning,” the Archbishops wrote to the Prime Minister on Tuesday.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in a letter on Monday, had implied that RC agencies would be forced to close if they could not opt out of the new legislation. The Equality Act 2006 is due to come into effect in England, Scotland, and Wales in April. It will outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities, and services.
Dr Williams and Dr Sentamu argue that exceptions have already been made in law for those whose conscience does not allow them to undertake certain work — NHS doctors unwilling to perform abortions, for example.
“In legislating to protect and promote the rights of particular groups, the Government is faced with the delicate but important challenge of not thereby creating the conditions within which others feel their rights to have been ignored or sacrificed, or in which the dictates of personal conscience are put at risk,” the Archbishops say.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said that it would be “unreasonable, unnecessary, and unjust discrimination” against RCs if they were forced to act against the teaching of the Church and their consciences, and that the closure of the RC adoption agencies would be “an unnecessary tragedy”.
RC teaching on family life meant that the agencies could not recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents. But the Church “utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual”, the Cardinal said.
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, speaking on the Today programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday, said that the Church of England was “absolutely” against discrimination, but this did not mean that, on this issue of adoption, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor had no case.
“When you over-legislate and intervene too much in people’s private lives, I think in the long run you end up with a statute being used to cure all ills, which it cannot. And I think the danger is therefore that to spin a legal spider’s web from which actually nobody can escape,” Dr Sentamu said.
The Cardinal’s letter said that currently the RC agencies offered an “informative, sympathetic, and helpful service to all those who enquire about adoption”, and referred homosexual couples to other agencies where their application might be considered. They took this “sign-posting” responsibility seriously, and their service represented 32 per cent of the voluntary adoption sector.
On Sunday, it was reported that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly, a Roman Catholic, was considering an opt-out clause to cover RC adoption agencies. Commenting in BBC programmes, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and the Environment Minister, Ben Bradshaw, both rejected any suggestion of an exemption.
The Act has been delayed from last October because there were 3000 responses to the Government’s consultation, Ruth Kelly has said.
The Archbishops’ letter in full
Dear Prime Minister,
The Church of England, along with others in the voluntary sector, including other churches and faith communities, have been in discussion with the government for some time over what has become known as the Sexual Orientation Regulations. Those discussions have been conducted in good faith, in mutual respect and with an appropriate level of confidence on all sides.
Last week that changed. Speculation about splits within government, fuelled by public comment from government ministers, appears to have created an atmosphere that threatens to polarise opinions. This does no justice to any of those whose interests are at stake, not least vulnerable children whose life chances could be adversely, and possibly irrevocably, affected by the overriding of reasoned discussion and proper negotiation in an atmosphere of mistrust and political expediency.
The one thing on which all seem able to agree is that these are serious matters requiring the most careful consideration. There is a great deal to gain. It is becoming increasingly evident, however, that much could also be lost, as the letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor makes clear.
Many in the voluntary sector are dedicated to public service because of the dictates of their conscience. In legislating to protect and promote the rights of particular groups the government is faced with the delicate but important challenge of not thereby creating the conditions within which others feel their rights to have been ignored or sacrificed, or in which the dictates of personal conscience are put at risk.
The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.
On numerous occasions in the past proper consideration has been given to the requirements of consciences alongside other considerations contributing to the common good, such as social need or human rights — the right, for example, of some doctors not to perform abortions, even though employed by the National Health Service.
It would be deeply regrettable if in seeking, quite properly, better to defend the rights of a particular group not to be discriminated against, a climate were to be created in which, for example, some feel free to argue that members of the government are not fit to hold public office on the grounds of their faith affiliation. This is hardly evidence of a balanced and reasonable public debate.
As you approach the final phase of what has, until very recently, been a careful and respectful consideration of the best way in which to introduce and administer new protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in England and Wales, we hope you, and cabinet colleagues, will do justice to the interests of the much wider grouping of interests within the nation that will be affected. It is vitally important that the interests of vulnerable children are not relegated to suit any political interest. And that conditions are not inadvertently created which make the claims of conscience an obstacle to, rather than the inspiration for, the invaluable public service rendered by parts of the voluntary sector.
Most Rev and Rt Hon Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury
Most Rev and Rt Hon John Sentamu
Archbishop of York