An MP well-known for his secularist views has launched a bid to change the 308-year-old Act of Settlement which may have implications for the established church.
There are concerns that the new Bill, presented by Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, is the latest move in a campaign to make Britain a secular state.
The Act of Settlement requires the heir to the throne to be a Protestant. Past attempts to change it have been controversial, because it could affect the established status of the Church of England.
Dr Harris’s Bill does not seek to change this part of the Act, and he insists his proposals are merely intended to “reverse centuries of discrimination against Catholics” and promote equality for female heirs.
If passed, the Bill would remove the ban on heirs to the throne marrying Roman Catholics, and would end ‘primogeniture’, the rule that sons of the monarch automatically precede their older sisters in the line of succession.
However, many Roman Catholics say the Act of Settlement is not a particular concern to them, and one leading commentator has denounced Dr Harris’s proposals because of his opposition to Roman Catholic beliefs in other areas such as abortion and euthanasia.
Damien Thompson, a leader writer at The Daily Telegraph and editor of a national Roman Catholic newspaper, commented on his blog: “[The Act is] mildly offensive, but Catholics have more important things to worry about. Such as saving late-term unborn babies from the grisly fate that Dr Harris is happy to see inflicted on them.”
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales said: “It’s not something that is top of our agenda. There’s a lot of other legislation going through that would have far more impact on how the Catholic church operates in this country, such as the assisted dying bill and the human fertilisation and embryology bill.”
Dr Harris is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, a group which seeks to eliminate religion from public life.
He was behind the successful attempt last year to repeal the blasphemy laws. Referring to the repeal, he said: “It should be seen as a secularising move, and with pride.”
During debates on the abolition of the blasphemy law, Dr Harris said: “I do not see why we should have any qualms about trying to secularise the state.”
He added: “What people believe is their own business, so far as I am concerned, and religion is a matter for the individual and the home, and for family, church and social clubs.”
Commenting on the new Bill, a Government spokesman said it “has always stood firmly against discrimination in all its forms, including against Roman Catholics, and we will continue to do so.
“We are examining this complex area although there are no immediate plans to legislate.”