LONDON – Gay-rights campaigners and secularists called on Tuesday for protests during a visit to Britain by Pope Benedict XVI this year after he condemned equality legislation seen as friendly to gays.
The 82-year-old pontiff made his comments on Monday, when he confirmed plans to visit Britain later this year in what would be the first such trip in 28 years. The papal trip is expected in September, one minister has said.
Human rights campaigner and gay activist Peter Tatchell said he saw the pope's remarks as an attack on the legal rights granted to gay people and women.
"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.
"He seems to be defending discrimination by religious institutions and demanding that they should be above the law."
The pope said Britain "is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity."
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."
"In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed."
Observers said the pontiff was referring to legislation that took effect on January 1, 2009 preventing adoption agencies — including Catholic ones — from discriminating against gay couples.
The government said equality legislation did not apply to purely religious jobs.
"Employment and non-discrimination law applies to religious organizations when they employ people in non-religious jobs in the same way that it does to all other employers," said women and equality minister Harriet Harman.
"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.
"However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organizations must comply with the law."
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said the premier had "enormous respect and admiration for the Pope and is very much looking forward to his visit".
He did not comment directly on the pope's remarks, but said: "The government has set out very clearly its position on equal opportunities and the legislation that Harriet Harman and others have talked about is very clear."
The date of the papal trip has not been confirmed but Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy was quoted last year as saying ministers had drawn up a program for a papal visit from September 16 to 19.
The National Secular Society (NSS) reacted furiously to the pope's remarks.
Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, said: "The taxpayer in this country is going to be faced with a bill of some 20 million pounds for the visit of the pope.
"A visit in which he has already indicated he will attack equal rights and promote discrimination."
He said he would appeal to gay groups, feminist groups, family planning organizations, pro-choice groups, victim support groups and "anyone who feels under siege from the Vatican's current militancy" to take part in the protests.
© AFP 2013