By politics.co.uk staff
Catholic pastors are preparing for their biggest confrontation with the government in years after the Pope encouraged them to take on Harriet Harman's equality bill.
Benedict XVI has warned the legislation, currently working its way through parliament, imposes "unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities".
It could strip the Catholic Church in Britain of its ability to discriminate against homosexuals in employment matters and even force them to allow women into the priesthood.
The government is refusing to back down, however. Earlier this week a vote relating to the responsibilities of religious establishments was soundly defeated in the Lords.
"I think his words will find an echo for many in our country who are uneasy that the perhaps unintended consequence of recent legislation is to drive religious belief and practise into the sphere of the private only," the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales Archbishop Vincent Nichols told the Today programme.
"The way our public life is organised is something in which everyone can contribute. He's certainly not getting involved in party politics. It's a reasoned voice and I think he has every right to express the concerns of many."
But gay rights groups and secular organisations attacked his intervention.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell branded the pope a "meddlesome pontiff".
"The pope's criticism that British equality legislation 'violates the natural law' is a coded attack on the legal rights granted to women and gay people. It is a de facto defence of faith-based discrimination," he commented.
"His ill-informed claim that our equality laws undermine religious freedom suggests that he supports the right of faith organisations to discriminate in accordance with their religious ethos. He seems to be defending discrimination by religious institutions and demanding that they should be above the law."
Naomi Phillips, head of public affairs at the British Humanist Association (BHA) said the pope's upcoming visit to the Uk should be cancelled.
"It comes as no surprise to hear yet more uninformed and homophobic remarks from the pope and, yet again, he is wrong. Equality laws do not impose unjust restrictions on religious freedom," she said.
"As well as a religious leader, the pope is a head of state which has been responsible for opposing the distribution of condoms, promoting segregated education, denying abortion to even the most vulnerable women and opposing LGBT rights, including universal decriminalisation of homosexuality.
"This latest attack on modern, liberal values is yet another reason why we will be opposing the pope's state visit to the UK later this year."
Pope Benedict XVI will visit Britain in September, the first ever state visit from the Vatican in history.