Scotland’s first minister has been criticised by the country’s most senior Roman Catholic bishop for refusing to attend a gay adoption radio debate.

Jack McConnell rejected an invitation to discuss the issue on London based Christian station, Premier Radio, prompting Bishop Joseph Devine to reopen their conflict over controversial legislation regarding adoption rights for gays and lesbians in Scotland.

Bishop Devine, who wants a public referendum on gay adoption, said the leader had “backed away from a free and public debate.”

He told the Herald, “Surely given his ‘paramount concern’ for the welfare and interests of children it was not too much to ask the first minister to discuss in an open forum with interested parties the concerns they harbour about children being adopted by homosexual and lesbian partners.

“What affairs of state could be more important than the interests of children?

“Or does Mr McConnell intend simply to debate the issue within the comfort and security of the Scottish Parliament where his political majority is assured?”

A spokesman for Mr McConnell said his full diary meant he unavailable to take part in the discussion, “He has a very busy calendar over the next few weeks.

“We get numerous bids like this for his time and he just was not available to take part.

“Our position on this is issue is well known.

Mr McConnell previously condemned claims by the bishop that the Scottish Executive is giving in to political correctness through gay adoption policies.

The Rt Rev Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell told Jack McConnell he would not support “politically correct zealots” and would not “stand by and watch the destruction of Christian values and truth.”

Senior Bishops are seeking a “conscience clause” giving the church and other faith-based groups the right to reject applicants to their adoption agencies on the basis of gender. They fear Catholic-run adoption societies will be challenged under new laws expected to come into force next year.