The row over a possible exemption for the Catholic Church from new laws to protect gay people from discrimination intensified yesterday as a senior cleric weighed into the debate.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has chosen the high risk strategy of openly threatening to close adoption agencies in England and Wales rather than let gay or lesbian people make use of them.

In a letter sent to Tony Blair and all cabinet members yesterday, the Cardinal, who is the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, set out the reasons he feels the church should be exempted from anti-discrimination legislation.

“We place significant emphasis on marriage, as it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured,” the Cardinal states in his letter.

“Marital love involves an essential complementarity (sic) of male and female.

“However, Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life, a teaching shared not only by other Christian Churches but also other faiths, means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents.

“We believe it would be unreasonable, unnecessary and unjust discrimination against Catholics for the Government to insist that Catholic adoption agencies must act against the teaching of the Church and their own consciences by being obliged in law to provide such a service.”

The new Sexual Orientation Regulations will outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services, including adoption agencies.

The SOR were introduced in Northern Ireland on January 1st and are due to become law in the rest of the UK in April.

Tony Blair’s spokesman said the Prime Minister had not made up his mind if an exemption should be granted.

“This is an issue with sensitivities on all sides. The key thing we have to remember in all of this is the interests of the children.”

The Cardinal’s last ditch attempt to secure an exemption for Catholics has been heavily criticised by MPs and gay rights activists.

Humanists have been trenchant in their condemnation of the Cardinal’s actions.

“This really is despicable blackmail,” said George Broadhead, secretary of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.

“Using the welfare of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the country as a blackmailing tool really is morally repellent.

“Gay couples who want to adopt usually end up with those with special needs – some of them very demanding. They offer a loving home to some of the most difficult to place children in care.”

Yesterday gay MP and former Anglican priest Chris Bryant told PinkNews.co.uk that the proposals were unneccesary and wrong.

“There are many gay Catholics who would make excellent parents and in the end the only thing that should matter is the interests of the child and not some pathological hatred of gays,” he said.

Gay rights organisation Stonewall said they will keep up the pressure on the government to oppose any opt-outs, which they feel will merely serve to damage vulnerable children.

Chief executive Ben Summerskill told PinkNews.co.uk, “We will continue to lobby ministers at all levels very hard indeed. The proof of the pudding will be the regulations.”

The Department for Communities and Local Government will have to publish the text of the SOR by mid-February, in order to allow at least six weeks for them to be adopted into law in time for April 1st.