Leading article: An unwise appointment

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The Independent Online

When Ruth Kelly was appointed Equalities minister last year it was always obvious that at some point her own private views would come into conflict with her public duties. It was patently absurd that a member of the ultra-conservative Catholic sect, Opus Dei, should be put in charge of promoting equality for, among other minority groups, gays and lesbians. Ms Kelly's record spoke for itself. She had managed to "miss" House of Commons votes on the age of consent and civil partnerships. And her refusal last year to state whether she regards homosexuality as a sin should have been a warning that this was an unwise appointment. And so it has been proved by the present imbroglio over Catholic adoption agencies.

Last week the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, sent a letter to every Cabinet minister demanding an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies from the provisions of the incoming Equalities Act. In subsequent Cabinet discussions, Tony Blair himself was the driving force behind the push for an exemption. But, by all accounts, Ms Kelly was firmly in the Catholic Church's corner too. Thankfully, this attempt to water down the Act seems to have been resisted by other Cabinet ministers - a sign of Mr Blair's waning authority. The expectation in Westminster is that there will be no blanket exemption for Catholic agencies. But Ms Kelly's resistance to the very Act she was responsible for implementing was a disgrace.

This has been presented by the Catholic Church as a question of "freedom of conscience". But strip away the rhetoric and this was essentially an attempt by a powerful vested interest to manipulate the law of the land to suit itself. Freedom of conscience should, of course, be respected. But Catholic adoption agencies - which claim they are ready to work with people of all faiths and marital status - have made a decision to step outside the private space to which all religious groups are entitled. Whether they accept the definition or not, they are in effect providing a public service.

The Equality Act is clear. It is illegal to discriminate against gay people in the provision of goods and services. There is no evidence to suggest that gay parents provide an inferior upbringing to that offered by a heterosexual couple. Therefore discrimination against them, as routinely practised by the dozen or so Catholic adoption agencies in the UK, is illegal.

So the Equalities Act has survived. But the same cannot be said of Ms Kelly's reputation. When taking up her role last year she argued: "I think anybody should be free from discrimination and I'll fight to the end to make sure that is the case." How hollow those words sound now.