The newly appointed government minister responsible for equality is facing controversy after she refused to say whether she believed homosexuality was a sin.
Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities, a committed Catholic and member of the Opus Dei group, was embroiled in a renewed row over her religious beliefs yesterday. And critics attacked her new role as the Government's equality champion after it emerged she had missed a series of votes on equal rights since 1997.
The row threatens further to undermine the wide-ranging reshuffle carried out by the Prime Minister after Labour's poor performance in the local elections last week. But Ms Kelly strongly defended her position, insisting she was committed to promoting equality.
Interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live, Ms Kelly twice declined to say whether she thought homosexuality was a sin. She said: "I'm sort of getting used to these questions as I go from one department to another. Is it possible to be a practising Catholic and hold a portfolio in government? The answer is 'yes'. Why? Because I'm collectively responsible for cabinet decisions and I firmly believe in equality and I believe everyone should be protected from discrimination."
Pressed again, she replied: "I don't think it is right for politicians to start making moral judgements about people. What I think the question is, is what are my political views? As a politician, those are the ones that I'm accountable for to the public."
In a second interview with Sky News, Ms Kelly repeatedly declined to say whether she agreed that same-sex couples should be permitted to adopt children. But she insisted she would promote the rights of all.
Ms Kelly has missed a total of 12 votes on homosexuality and equal rights since 1997. They include a vote in June 1998 on the Crime and Disorder Bill to lower the age of homosexual consent, and two votes in 1999 on the Sexual Offences (amendment) Bill also lowering the age of consent.
In 2002, she also missed three votes on the Adoption and Children Bill, which permitted gay adoption, but did vote in May 2002 for an amendment to the Bill that would have allowed unmarried heterosexual couples to adopt, but exclude same-sex couples.
Ms Kelly's early days as Education Secretary were dogged with questions about her religion, and her membership of the conservative Opus Dei organisation, which features in the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code.
She will have to implement the new Equality Act, which became law earlier this year making discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation illegal in the same way as race or gender. Pubs, hotels and religious charities will be barred from discriminating against lesbians and gay men.
Ms Kelly's comments provoked disquiet yesterday among gay rights campaigners.
A poll on the gay website pinknews.co.uk found 93 per cent of readers believed Tony Blair should reconsider Ms Kelly's appointment. Campaigners also pointed out that the gay rights group Stonewall was not invited to a briefing for stakeholders yesterday by Ms Kelly's department.
Downing Street defended Ms Kelly. The Prime Minister's spokesman, said: "She repeatedly said she supported the decisions taken by the Government in this area. She repeatedly said she is totally opposed to discrimination of any kind whatsoever. She pointed out she pushed the equality agenda when she was at the Cabinet Office."
Lorely Burt, the Liberal Democrats spokeswoman on equality, said: "How can the gay community trust legislation to be properly implemented when Ruth Kelly has such an ambiguous record on gay rights? Ruth Kelly urgently needs to come clean about whether she agrees with her own department's policies on equality issues. Blair's reshuffle tried to reduce bad headlines but has so far only succeeded in shifting trouble from one department to another."
The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: "Given her equivocal stance and her voting record on gay rights issues, it seems inappropriate she should be in charge of a department tasked with ensuring equal rights for lesbians and gay men."
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, said: "We accept Ruth's assurances that she is absolutely committed to delivering the policy of the Labour Party and the Government."
'People express private views in votes of conscience'
Ruth Kelly, speaking to Nicky Campbell on Radio Five Live
Nicky Campbell: As minister for Women and Equality with your deeply held religious beliefs and membership to the Opus Dei group of Catholics... do you think homosexuality is a sin?
Ruth Kelly: I'm sort of getting used to these questions... about what it's like to be a Catholic in the middle of government.
NC: I'm not asking about that...
RK: That's exactly what you are asking, is it possible to be a practising Catholic and hold a portfolio in government? The answer is yes. Why? Because I'm collectively responsible for cabinet decisions and I firmly believe in equality...
NC: Do you think homosexuality is a sin?
RK: I don't think it's right for politicians to start making moral judgements about people ... What I think the question is, is what are my political views? Those are the ones that I'm accountable for to the public. As a politician I think everybody should be free from discrimination.
Speaking to Kay Burley on Lunchtime Live on Sky News
Kay Burley: What are your views on homosexuality?
RK: As Equality minister I'm delighted to be taking on this brief. I was the minister who set up the equality review...
KB: OK. What are your views on homosexuality?
RK: Well, as I say I don't think people with different sexual orientations ought to be discriminated against in society and as a politician I will make it my responsibility and duty to ensure I have a society which is tolerant, which is fair...
KB: In May 2002 I believe that you voted against same sex couples being able to adopt. Is that right?
RK: Look, people have private views which they express in the House of Commons on votes of conscience in the usual way as members of Parliament. As a member of the Government, I have collective cabinet responsibility...
KB: No, no no... you are the Equality minister. It's not collective responsibility. It's up to you to make sure everyone is treated equally...
RK: And I will do that.