The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales has claimed that religion is under attack in this country.

In his strongest condemnation yet of legislation designed to protect gay, lesbian and bisexual people from discrimination, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor last night became the first Catholic leader in nearly 200 years to question whether the policy of the government is at odds with practising the Roman faith.

He accused the British government of creating, “a different version of our democracy, one in which diversity and equality are held to be at odds with religion.”

In a lecture in London, the Cardinal said that Roman Catholics and other Christians and faith groups were going to demand their rights to continue to discriminate against gay couples when providing adoption services.

The Roman Catholic church had lobbied the government for an exemption for their state-funded adoption agencies from the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which come into force on 30th April.

The regulations outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services, including adoption.

“My fear is that, under the guise of legislating for what is said to be tolerance, we are legislating for intolerance.

“Once this begins, it is hard to see where it ends,” the Cardinal told an audience in Westminster last night, according to the Daily Mail.

“My fear is that in an attempt to clear the public square of what are seen as unacceptable intrusions, we weaken the pillars on which that public square is erected, and we will discover that the pillars of pluralism may not survive.

“The question is whether the threads holding together pluralist democracy have begun to unravel. That is why I have sounded this note of alarm.

“I am conscious that when an essential core of our democratic freedom risks being undermined, subsequent generations will hold to account those who were able to raise their voices yet stayed silent.”

The Cardinal said he feared that Britain was becoming a country where faith-based charity work will not be welcomed.

“When Christians stand by their beliefs, they are intolerant dogmatists. When they sin, they are hypocrites.

“When they take the side of the poor, they are soft-headed liberals. When they seek to defend the family, they are right wing reactionaries,” he said.

The Cardinal gave his strongest indication yet that the church would close their nine adoption agencies rather than take an estimated £10m of government money to run them in compliance with the new law.

Earlier this month he accused Tony Blair of abusing Parliament by not allowing MPs more time to debate the Sexual Orientation Regulations.