Christians must choose between their religion and obeying the law, according to Trevor Phillips, the human rights watchdog.
He declared that Christians who want to be exempt from equality legislation are like Muslims trying to impose sharia.
Religious rules should end “at the door of the temple” and give way to the “public law” laid down by Parliament, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said.
He argued that Roman Catholic adoption agencies and other faith groups providing public services must choose between their religion and obeying the law when their beliefs conflict with the will of the state.
Mr Phillips singled out the adoption agencies that fought a long legal battle to avoid being forced to accept homosexual couples under equality laws.
Last year, following a High Court case, the Charity Commission ruled against an exemption for Catholic Care, an adoption agency operating in Leeds.
Speaking at a debate in London on diverse societies, Mr Phillips backed the new laws, which led to the closure of all Catholic adoption agencies in England. “You can’t say because we decide we’re different then we need a different set of laws,” he said, in comments reported by The Tablet, the Catholic newspaper.
“To me there’s nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn’t apply to us. Why not then say sharia can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work.”
He added that religious groups should be free to follow their own rules within their own settings but not outside. “Once you start to provide public services that have to be run under public rules, for example child protection, then it has to go with public law,” he said.
“Institutions have to make a decision whether they want to do that or they don’t want to do that.”
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Mr Phillips’s remarks were condemned as “inflammatory” and “ridiculous” by legal specialists and religious leaders.
Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, called on the authorities to respect the nation’s heritage as a democracy in which the Church of England is the established religion. He described the comparison with sharia as “ridiculous” and called on MPs to find ways of “accommodation” when new laws clash with religious beliefs.
“I have argued in the past that there can be only one law to which all should be accountable. But we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper as far as religion is concerned.
“We are a democracy in which Christianity is established in the Church of England and a nation profoundly influenced by this faith in its Catholic and Anglican heritage. We need lawmakers to respect this heritage and seek accommodation wherever a strongly held faith seems to clash with new legislation.”
Legal experts called on Mr Phillips to clarify his comments about sharia – Islamic law – which many associate with draconian punishments such as stoning adulterers to death.
Neil Addison, a barrister and director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, said: “The EHRC is so obsessed with equality that it has lost sight of freedom. It would prefer people not to do good, rather than to do good on their own terms.” The comments were “inflammatory”, said Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre. “These comments are deeply illiberal. They are intolerant,” she said. “Trevor Phillips fails to understand the nature of faith and what inspires faith and what makes agencies like Catholic adoption agencies so selfless.”
The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said that Mr Phillips appeared to be applying a “totalitarian view of society”.
“Trevor Phillips in the past has argued for respect for Christian conscience,” he said. “I am very surprised that here he seems to be saying that there should be a totalitarian kind of view in which a believer’s conscience should not be respected.”
While the basic principles of sharia contradict Western public law, the issue for Catholic adoption agencies was one of “respect for conscience”, he said. “They are two different issues.”
Mr Phillips’s remarks threatened to add to controversy over the role of religion in Britain.
Last week, a High Court judge ruled that it was unlawful for local councils to include Christian prayers in their formal meetings after a legal challenge by an atheist former councillor who objected.
The ruling immediately pitted the Government against the courts as ministers urged councils to defy the ban. Bideford council in Devon decided last night to appeal against the decision.
Baroness Warsi, the chairman of the Conservative Party, warned earlier this week that the forces of “militant secularism” reminiscent of “totalitarian regimes” were threatening traditional society. Then the Queen made a rare intervention in the debate, arguing that the Church had been “misunderstood” and was “under-appreciated”.
Mr Phillips has been outspoken in his defence of human rights law even when they conflict with religious beliefs.
He has accused some Christian groups of being more militant than Muslims.
During the debate, he praised both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches for their work in inner cities, particularly through faith schools, but accused some religious groups of growing intolerance.
“There is something rather odd that is happening amongst what I call the righteous brigade, that is people of good will and so on,” Mr Phillips said.
“And that is that if you don’t agree 100 per cent with them and excoriate people who have a different point of view actually somehow you are joining a bad bunch of people.”
Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said Mr Phillips was “absolutely right”.
“If society has decided that it wants to ensure by law that every citizen of this country has equal rights, then there cannot be endless exemptions for religious bodies or anyone else,” he said.
“There is no such thing as partial equality, and every time an exemption is made, someone else’s rights are compromised.”
In 2008 Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, caused consternation when he claimed that it seemed “inevitable” that elements of Islamic law, such as divorce proceedings, would be incorporated into the British legal system.