Leading article: No exceptions, no exemptions

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The Independent Online

The issue of gay adoption is one of the forward outposts of the struggle for equal rights in this country. Great advances have been made in the past 10 years, after a 30-year pause following the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967. There may be a tendency among some parts of progressive opinion to think that the struggle has been largely won, that social attitudes are changing surprisingly quickly, and that there can be no harm in a bit of "pragmatism" at this stage in order to maintain a consensus behind the next set of reforms.

These reforms are contained in last year's Equality Act, which comes into effect this year. Until now, the most controversial provisions have been those that require the providers of accommodation, including bed-and-breakfasts, to treat gay couples in the same way as straight ones. Those, however, have been agreed and will come into force despite the threat by some B&B owners to defy the law or to close their doors.

What remains to be decided in the detailed regulations that give effect to the law is the matter of gay adoption. Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities, supported by the Prime Minister, wants to exempt Roman Catholic adoption agencies from the requirement to treat gay and straight couples equally. Ms Kelly's spokeswoman describes this as "the pragmatic way forward". It could just as well be described as "the coward's way out", which is paradoxical, given Tony Blair's lectures to his colleagues on the need to take difficult decisions that may not always be popular in the short term.

We agree with Angela Eagle, the Labour MP, who describes the Kelly/Blair position as being like "telling Rosa Parks to wait for the fully integrated bus coming behind".

As Joan Smith argues on the opposite page, Ms Kelly's Catholicism and Mr Blair's Catholicism-by-marriage are not merely interesting as a matter of social observation. They are relevant if they influence the making of public policy, because this is a policy that should be decided on the quality of the arguments for and against. It would seem that the Catholic bishops have persuaded Ms Kelly and Mr Blair that there is a "pragmatic" consideration that outweighs the simple principle of equality. Roman Catholic families are good adopters, it is said, because the opposition of the church to abortion goes together with its promotion of a duty to adopt. But are Catholics going to cease to be good adopters just because their bishops have closed down the Catholic adoption agencies as a form of political protest? We do not believe so.

And there is a "pragmatic" argument on the other side. Gay couples are good adopters too. Of course, there are potential problems for the children brought up in unconventional families, but these are as nothing to the problems of children brought up in care homes. What is more, many of these problems arise from traditional attitudes to gay people, and would be diminished by the spread of tolerance.

We believe, unlike Mr Blair and Ms Kelly, that social acceptance of full equality for gay people will be furthered by brave changes that enshrine that principle in the law - with no exceptions.