Comment: Public or Papal duty?

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While gay campaigners question the reasons behind a delay in introducing the new Sexual Orientation Regulations,’s Tony Grew asks who Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly is really representing.

When Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications at Number 10, was asked about Tony Blair’s religious faith, he famously replied, “We don’t do God.”

Since Campbell’s departure from Downing St in 2003, the Prime Minister has shown an alarming tendency to refer to his religious beliefs more frequently.

Blair recently told Michael Parkinson that he had used prayer as part of his decision-making process when deciding to take the country to war in Iraq.

The Observer reported on Sunday that the Prime Minister is backing a delay in introducing new guidelines to protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

The new rules to prevent schools, companies and other agencies refusing services to people because of their sexuality, due to be introduced this month, have been the subject of criticism from religious groups, most prominent among them the Roman Catholic Church.

The Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, is responsible for delaying the new guidelines.

Her stated reason is the large amount of objections the government has received.

Kelly’s stance has the backing of Tony Blair, and there is an open split in Cabinet between liberal members and the “Catholic tendency.”

The fact that there is a religious tendency at the very top of government is something new in British politics.

At no other time in recent history has a human rights issue been delayed by the personal religious views of ministers.

Britain has traditionally kept a strict separation between religion and politics. While most, if not all, Cabinet members have been church-going Christians, it was always seen as dangerous for their religious views to affect policy.

In a country where the head of state is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Prime Minister appoints bishops and those bishops have seats in the House of Lords, religious leaders actually have very little direct influence on the government.

Contrast that to America, where no one has a chance of becoming President without constantly presenting their religious beliefs to the voters. Or the vice-like grip the Roman Catholic Church had on politics in countries like Ireland, Spain and Italy.

The unique nature of the British system has meant that the UK has managed to avoid religious control over politics. Abortion, divorce and homosexuality were legalised over the objections of the churches.

Matters of social policy have rightly been seen as a conversation between politicians and the voters, not the churches.

The Roman Catholic Church is a very different institution from the Church of England.

It is instinctively repressive, it has always actively interfered with democratic politics, and the fact that it has its own cheerleader, Ruth Kelly, at the heart of the British government is a matter of serious concern.

In Ireland, priests would instruct their parishioners who to vote for from the pulpit. Referendums to legalise divorce were constantly frustrated by overt political campaigns run by the Roman Catholic Church.

The Cardinal of Ireland was more influential that the Taoiseach (Prime Minister).

Only the revelation that the Church was a paedophile ring broke their grip on the country. There was no divorce in Ireland until 1996.

In Spain, Cardinals and priests who had no fear of directly meddling in the political process fought the concept of legalised homosexuality.

They openly threatened any politician considering opposing them with excommunication and isolation and held the fairytale of an eternity in Hell over their heads as punishment for daring to be socially liberal.

Ruth Kelly says that her deep devotion to the Pope and her membership of shady ultra-Catholic sect Opus Dei are personal matters. That they do not interfere with her ability to do her job. That anyone who questions her about her personal religious views is subtly indulging in Catholic bashing.

Anyone with an understanding of how the Roman Catholic Church wields its influence and directs its followers will know that her position is nonsense.

Only last month, Pope Benedict took the opportunity to castigate Roman Catholic politicians in Canada for voting for gay rights.

The meddling Pontiff feels that the views of their constituents should be subservient to the views of the Vatican on matters of social policy.

In the 2004 US Presidential election, the Catholic Church refused Kerry communion and said he was not welcome at Mass because he supported abortion, effectively sabotaging John Kerry’s campaign. This created in the minds of religious voters the idea that Kerry was somehow less of a Christian than the evangelist Bush.

Indeed, during the 1960 Presidential election, many Americans openly questioned whether a Catholic such as John F Kennedy should be allowed to lead the country.

Wouldn’t he be taking orders from Rome? Wouldn’t the Catholic Church attempt to influence him, as they did the leaders of every Catholic European country?

At the time that sentiment was dismissed as anti-Catholic prejudice. In 21st century Britain that question seems pertinent once again.

Who does Ruth Kelly represent? Who does she work for? And why has Tony Blair allowed this conflict of interests to occur?

This is not an attack on Kelly’s right to her religious views. But she is not a private citizen, a Bolton housewife with a tendency towards self-flagellation and medieval social attitudes.

She is the Cabinet minister charged with delivering equality. Tony Blair has appointed her as the guardian of gay rights. For her to refuse to tell us whether she thinks gayness is a sin is completely unsustainable.

Blair himself is backing the Church, which should come as a shock to no one. Cherie is a devout Catholic, and three of the Blair children attended Catholic schools.

The Prime Minister has always showed an alarming interest in the Catholic Church.

As one educated by that Church for 14 years, I have a deep understanding of their modus operandi, and we should all be worried about its creeping influence in British politics.

There is a reason why Roman Catholics are excluded from the line of succession in the Royal Family. There is a reason why we have never had a Catholic Prime Minister.

It is not a prejudice against Catholics as individuals, but against the way in which the Roman Church seeks to influence its members.

Those of us who believe in a secular state should be deeply concerned that the Church has managed to get Kelly and Blair to listen to their argument over the new guidelines.

The Catholic Church seems to be saying that as they believe homosexuals are deviants, that their bigotry should be respected.

The Roman Church demands that the Church alone educate Catholic children. It runs faith schools that are paid for by British taxpayers, including gay and lesbian taxpayers. It is contracted by the government to run adoption agencies, again paid for by all taxpayers.

If they feel that providing those services is incompatible with what the voters elected New Labour to deliver, namely equality, then they should withdraw from providing them.

They should not be mollified and allowed to hold up their prejudice against gay and lesbians as a moral position. No school should be allowed to teach hatred and prejudice.

No adoption agency should be allowed to make choices that are based not on the interests of the child but the flawed judgements of a religious group.

It strikes me as ironic that the world’s largest paedophile ring pontificates on matters of child welfare.

The Catholic Church has threatened to close its adoption agencies rather than let gay or lesbian couples adopt though them. We should call their bluff and welcome those closures, as it will ensure that adoption is just about the interests of the child and not the Church.

The creeping influence of Catholicism into British politics should be opposed. Kelly should be forced to respond to questions about her views on human sexuality. At present she appears to be working directly in the interests of the Vatican and not the Labour party or her constituents.

Perhaps Kelly would like to publicly distance herself from Pope Benedict’s explicitly expressed view that Muslims have brought only evil to the world.

It is bewildering that Tony Blair picked this religious zealot to engage with the Muslim community at this critical time.

Unlike Presidential candidate John Kerry and President Kennedy, Kelly has not publicly reassured voters that she takes her cue from the electorate and not the Pope. recently highlighted Gordon Brown’s absence from votes on gay rights legislation. While it may just be possible that Brown did not personally feel gay people should be granted those rights, it is certain he would not try to influence policy to reflect his religious views. When challenged about his record, the Treasury angrily denied he was homophobic.

If Ruth Kelly were to vote for gay adoption, she would be voting against her beliefs. So she sidestepped the issue by abstaining. When asked to clarify her position, she hides behind the right to privacy.

Tony Blair, heavily influenced by his wife, takes Kelly’s side in this vital point of principle.

For all the fanfare of 1997, there are currently no gay or lesbian cabinet ministers. Chris Smith, Nick Brown and Peter Mandelson are all out of government. There is no gay or lesbian voice at those meetings.

We should be grateful that Education Secretary Alan Johnson is willing to stand up to Blair and Kelly and demand that the gay rights agenda move forward without religious interference.

There are members of the LGBT community in both the LibDem and Conservative shadow cabinets.

As for Ruth Kelly, while she was once talked about as a future Prime Minister, it is now doubtful if she will even have a job in a Brown administration. Indeed, her parliamentary seat, Bolton West, is reasonably marginal.

In 2005 she won with a majority of 2016, just 5% ahead of the Conservatives. The Boundary Commission is altering the seat in time for the 2009/10 election.

If the Tories really want to show real commitment to the gay community, they should pick a candidate to contest Bolton West who can show Kelly the door. That would get my vote.