Leading article: When the interests of child and church collide

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The Independent Online

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has upped the stakes in the gay adoption row by writing personally to every Cabinet member, warning that the church could close its seven adoption agencies.

In the letter, the Cardinal has made it clear that unless the agencies are exempted from the new laws, which take effect in April and would require them to place children with homosexual couples, they will have to end a service which currently places 200 children a year - 4 per cent of the total.

He is no mood to compromise over this sticky issue, any more than the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, who said at the weekend that laws banning discrimination against gay people must apply to everybody "whatever their religion". In so saying, Lord Falconer rejected the compromise suggested by his Cabinet colleague, Ruth Kelly, that church-run adoption agencies could be exempted from the law but would be required to refer gay couples wishing to adopt to other agencies that would accept them.

That fudge, backed by No 10 Downing Street, is unlikely to have persuaded Conservative Catholics who believe homosexuality to be a sin. Religious conviction does not bend to the orthodoxies of the day. Both sides in this dispute are now firmly dug in and it is hard to see how an amicable solution can be reached.

But we should remember who is at the centre of this dispute - those tragic children, denied the start in life that should be every child's birthright, seeking the security of a loving home. They are hungry for love, respect, safety and continuity. In 2006, 3,700 children were adopted from care in the UK, with an average age of four years and one month. Of these, 185 went to gay couples.

The dispute recalls others in which Catholic bishops have confronted ministers, from faith schools to abortion. In the battle over faith schools, the church successfully forced the Government to abandon plans that would have required faith schools to accept a quarter of their admissions from other religions. That cannot be allowed to happen this time. The welfare of the child is paramount in adoption. If parents can be found who offer a child in care a secure and loving home, then considerations of race, religion, or sexual orientation must not interfere. Gay couples have proved that they are the equal of heterosexual couples when it comes to parenting. Ministers must call the Catholic bishops' bluff - and stand their ground.