Harriet Harman defends equality legislation following Pope's criticism

Harriet Harman defended the Government’s attempts to strengthen the country’s equalities legislation today after the Pope called on bishops to fight any measures which may force churches to hire homosexual and transgender employees with “missionary zeal”.

Benedict XVI caused anger among gay groups when, in a letter confirming his state visit to Britain this summer, he suggested that Ms Harman’s equality drive was a “violation of natural law”.

Both Anglican and Catholic bishops have expressed concerns that the ongoing Equality Bill will eventually force religious organisations that regard homosexuality as a sin to take on openly gay staff. Currently most faith hierarchies are exempt from the rules, meaning churches are not forced to appoint gay clergy or priests.

But Ms Harman wants any religious organisations that are not involved in the appointment of clerical positions to obey UK law like anyone else.

"Employment and non-discrimination law applies to religious organisations when they employ people in non-religious jobs in the same way that it does to all other employers,” she said. "We have never insisted on non-discrimination legislation applying to religious jobs such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi. However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organisations must comply with the law.”

An amendment to the Equalities Bill which would have clarified which positions and organizations could continue to be closed to gay people was thrown out by the Lords last week with the help of eight Anglican bishops who voted against it.

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has always made clear its dislike of the Government’s Sexual Orientation Regulations which forced Catholic adoption agencies to consider gay couples as potential adoptive parents.

But a Labour MEP suggested earlier today that the leader of the world’s Roman Catholics should stick to applying European equality rules in the Vatican rather than meddling in UK legislation.

Stephen Hughes, who is currently in Rome attending a meeting of the European Parliament's Socialists and Democrats voting bloc, said: "As a Catholic, I am appalled by the attitude of the Pope. Religious leaders should be trying to eradicate inequality, not perpetuate it."

He added: "Instead of criticising the UK's plans to improve its legislation, the Pope should ensure that existing EU legislation is properly applied in the Vatican."

The head of Britain’s Catholics, the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, defended the Pope’s comments, saying the Pontiff was simply sharing his concerns that equality legislation encroaches upon religious freedoms.

"I think his words will find an echo in many in our country who are uneasy that perhaps one of the unintended consequences of recent legislation is to drive religious belief and practice into the sphere of the private only," he said. "The way in which our public life is organised is something to which everybody has a right to contribute. He is certainly not getting involved in party politics... but he wants his reasoned voice - formed by the treasures of the Christian heritage which is deeply embedded in our culture - he wants that voice to be heard.”

But others expressed dismay that the Pontiff had chosen to make such an overtly political statement to accompany his announcement of an upcoming state visit and have vowed to protest throughout his visit to the UK.

Kate Smurthwaite, from pro-choice lobby group Abortion Rights, said: "Considering the Pope is one of the world’s leading figures from the anti-abortion lobby we would be opposed to his visit on a matter of principle and we’ll be making sure our voices are heard throughout his visit. However, what has angered us even more is that the Pope clearly intends to use his visit to try and promote his own political agenda. The very fact that he publicly came out against equality legislation shows that he has no intention of keeping politics out of his visit.“

She added: “If Benedict was campaigning against racial equality we’d be disgusted and I doubt he’d even be let in the country. But because he’s only having a go at equal rights for gay men and women we’re welcoming him with open arms. That’s simply not right and we certainly shouldn’t be stumping up £20m for his visit when that money could be so much better spent elsewhere.”

The National Secular Society has called for a coalition of protestors to unite against the visit and has created an online petition for those opposed to the Pope’s security bill being footed by the tax payer.   

Terry Sanderson, NSS president, said their website has repeatedly crashed over the past 24 hours because of the volume of traffic towards their petition.  “We only put it up five hours ago and already it’s had 3,000 people signing up,” he said. “Those are just the ones that can get through because the site keeps crashing.”

Sanderson said a wide spectrum of people had phoned in citing their opposition to the Pope’s visit. “I think it reflects that there is widespread anger and opposition to the idea that tax payers money should be used to pay for the Pope’s visit,” he said. “And it’s not just gay rights groups and secularists who are angry. A few hours ago I had a call from a victim support group for people who had been sexually abused by priests. They’re keeping a low profile at the moment but I know they’re very upset.”

The Pope’s visit is expected to take place in mid-September where he will conduct masses across the country and meet the Queen during her annual holiday in Balmoral, Scotland.