PinkNews.co.uk exclusive

Eleanor Laing, The Conservative shadow minister for Women and Equality, has called on the government to find a solution to the row over exemptions from equality legislation for Roman Catholic adoption agencies.

Ms Laing, the MP for Epping Forest, also criticised those who have attacked Ruth Kelly for her religious beliefs.

“We have entirely supported the Equality Act throughout its passage in Parliament and we support the regulations on Sexual Orientation,” she told PinkNews.co.uk.

While not being drawn on what solution to the current row the Conservative party would put forward, Ms Laing called on the government to find a way to balance the rights of gay people and the religiously devout.

“There is a genuine clash of opinion between one group of people and another, each of whom argues that the law should protect them and allow them freely to practise on the one hand their sexual orientation and on the other hand their religious belief.

“I would like to see a balance that most reasonable people would find acceptable, but any balance which is found must not dilute the basic principle of non-discrimination.”

Ms Laing said that she was appalled at some of the attacks on her opponent Ruth Kelly since the news of possible opt-outs from the Sexual Orientation Regulations emerged last weekend:

“I vehemently defend Ruth Kelly’s right to practise her own religion while at the same time acting responsibly as a government minister.

“The Conservatives believe in tolerance in all areas of life. I personally disagree with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor on most things, but I respect his right to adhere to his beliefs and speak out on them.”

The Cardinal, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has threaten to close church-run adoption agencies rather than consider gay or lesbian couples as prospective parents.

Ms Laing said there would be no return to the issue of whether gay couples should be allowed to adopt, saying, “that matter was decided in the House of Commons in 2002, and I have no problem at all with gay couples adopting.”

No 10 issued a statement from Tony Blair yesterday insisting that he is still confident he can find a solution to the row over Catholic opt-outs, despite the fact that most of his cabinet colleagues and Labour MPs oppose any such exemptions.

Mr Blair said that he has always personally been in favour of the right of gay couples to adopt, and that he will announce a decision next week.

The new Sexual Orientation Regulations will come before parliament next month, and Tory MPs will be given a free vote.