Pope Benedict XVI is making plans for a historic trip to the UK later this year. But he will be followed by secularists and gay-rights supporters angered over his comments condemning proposed British equality laws.
Activists are calling for protests against the papal visit, slated for this September, after the pope criticized recent equality legislation as infringing upon religious freedom rights.
"His ill-informed claim that our equality laws undermine religious freedom suggests that he supports the right of churches to discriminate in accordance with their religious ethos," said human rights campaigner and gay activist Peter Taschell. "He seems to be defending discrimination by religious institutions and demanding that they should be above the law."
In a speech to a group of Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in Rome on Monday, the pope urged his audience to use "missionary zeal" to fight equality legislation currently before British the parliament.
"Your country is well known for its commitment to equality and opportunity for all members of society," the pope told the bishops. But he added that "the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs."
The Equality Bill bans all forms of discrimination in recruitment and would apply to all employers, including religious organizations. Church leaders have warned that it would expose them to legal challenges over their refusal to employ sexually active homosexuals and transsexuals.
Another law troubling the Catholic Church went into effect on January 1 and requires adoption agencies, including Catholic ones, to allow gay couples to adopt.
Government says Catholic Church must comply
According Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party and minister for women and equality, the law will not apply to purely religious jobs.
"We have never insisted on non-discrimination legislation applying to religious jobs such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi. Religious organizations can decide themselves how to do that," she said. "However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organizations must comply with the law."
Pope's costly visit
Terry Sanderson from the National Secular Society estimates that the pope's visit could end up costing Britain 23 million euros ($32 million). He has launched a campaign to stop the British taxpayer from having to foot the bill. The campaign hopes to gather together gay groups, victims of clerical abuse, feminists, family planning organizations and supporters of abortion rights.
"We're certainly going to try and make it very plain to him that not everybody is in agreement with his teachings," Sanderson said. "We're hoping to get together a coalition of people from various bodies that have been discriminated against or insulted by the pope."
Sanderson described the pope's comments as "antidemocratic" and accused him of interfering in Britain's political process. The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, rejected that accusation and said he thinks such participation is important.
"We have been talking about the capacity and need for the Church to bear a public witness in the political life of our country," he said.
Nichols said he thinks the pope's position resonates with many Britons who are "uneasy" with the equality legislation.
Editor: Ben Knight
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