BY SIMON CALDWELL
RUTH KELLY was this week on a collision course with the Catholic Church after she snubbed a request for a meeting to discuss Government plans to impose sweeping new gay rights laws.
Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff wrote to the Communities and Local Government Secretary a month ago to ask for a chance to talk to her about the Sexual Orientation Regulations face to face.
But so far the devout Catholic mother-of-four, a member of Opus Dei , has not acknowledged his letter.
Archbishop Smith also sought assurances on behalf of the Catholic Church in England and Wales that its seven Catholic adoption agencies, which find new families for more than 200 children a year, would be granted exemptions under the regulations.
The rules, which are to come into force in England, Scotland and Wales in April, are supposed to protect gays from discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services.
But Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders say they would "discriminate heavily" against anyone who publicly expressed the view that gay sex is not morally equivalent to the conjugal love of a married heterosexual couple.
The bishops have already told the Government that they would close down their adoption agencies if made to place children in the care of gay couples. The Vatican has described gay adoption as "gravely immoral" and two agencies in the United States closed when similar legislation was passed last year.
Catholic officials were understood to be insulted by Miss Kelly's apparent refusal to discuss the regulations with them.
"We made strong representations to the Government about these regulations." said Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham. "A response is still awaited."
He said the bishops sought clear measures by which their schools and adoption agencies will be able to continue working in ways that are consistent with Catholic principle and practice.
The archbishop added: "The work undertaken by Catholic adoption agencies is both substantial and for the common good."
The Government has refused to confirm whether it had received the letter from Archbishop Smith, the chairman of the bishops' Department for Citizenship and Christian Responsibility.
A spokeswoman would say only that Ministers and officials had discussed the likely impact of the regulations with a "wide range of interest groups".
She said: "This has included meetings with a number of organisations representing religious interests about the impact of the regulations on a range of activities."
Conservative former Minister Ann Widdecombe, a convert to Catholicism, said Miss Kelly's response was inadequate.
"Ruth has a duty both as a Minister and a Catholic to respond to the archbishop and she should do so immediately," she said. "These regulations will see the death of freedom of conscience in Britain." Miss Kelly was treated with suspicion by gay rights groups when she was appointed to her new post in the Cabinet reshuffle last May. She has been absent from every major vote on gay rights since Labour came to power in 1997.
Last year BBC Radio 5 Live DJ Nicky Campbell asked her three times: "Do you think homosexuality is a sin?" She refused to give him a direct answer, saying only that she "firmly believed in equality".
However, she appointed Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of the gay lobbying group Stonewall. as a commissioner for the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, a body which will ensure regulations are implemented and has power to fund court cases to ensure compliance.
No representative of any faith group has been appointed to the commission.
Although Miss Kelly delayed the introduction of the legislation by six months after an unexpectedly high number of responses to the public consultation, Christian leaders claim she has done little to address their fears of being sued.
Besides the threat to adoption agencies, the rules will also mean that faith-based marriage guidance agencies must offer services to gay couples as well as married heterosexuals.
The churches also complain that they would be vulnerable to legal action if they refused to place gay sex on an equal footing to the conjugal love of married couples during lessons in schools.
Religious believers in business will also be affected by the regulations. Christian hoteliers will be compelled to rent rooms to gay couples while Muslim printers will be unable to refuse to print homosexual magazines or advertisements.
The final version of the British rules — which the Government produced supposedly to meet the demands of a European Directive — has yet to be published.
But the Northern Ireland rules, which came into force last week, say people found guilty of discrimination will be fined between £500 and £1,000 for a first offence. Subsequent serious offences can attract penalties of up to £25,000.
The regulations have prompted a backlash from all the mainstream faith communities. As The Catholic Herald went to press, one Muslim group was urging its supporters to stand alongside Christian opponents to the new laws at a torch-lit rally outside Parliament on Tuesday to coincide with a House of Lords debate on the issue.
It is also supporting a petition organised by the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship to the Queen asking her to use her "position and power" to persuade Tony Blair to drop the measures.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews has also spoken out against the regulations.
Gay rights activists have urged the Government to resist the growing pressure.
'The gay community really must get its act together or these important new measures will be steamrollered by religious bigotry," said George Broadhead of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.
'The religious groups will not be satisfied until they have destroyed them altogether," he added.