The Catholic bishops of England and Wales said they could be at risk of prosecution under a proposed law unless they accept women, sexually active gays and transsexuals as candidates to the priesthood, the Catholic News Service reports.
In a briefing for Catholic members of the House of Lords, the bishops said the bill defines priests as employees rather than officeholders.
Under the terms of an equality bill that aims to stamp out discrimination in the workplace, the Church would be immune from prosecution only if priests spend more than 51 percent of their time in worship or explaining doctrine.
Debate on the Equality Bill is scheduled for next week in the House of Lords.
The bishops are cited saying that it will, in effect, make it "unlawful to require a Catholic priest to be male, unmarried or not in a civil partnership, since no priest would be able to demonstrate that their time was wholly or mainly spent either leading liturgy or promoting and explaining doctrine."
"The bill fails to reflect the time priests spend in pastoral work, private prayer and study, administration, building maintenance," the briefing said.
The bishops asked Catholic lords to try to either strike out the contentious definition or widen it to protect priests and lay employees "whose credibility ... would be fatally compromised if their personal lives were openly at variance with the church's teaching."
A government spokesman rejected the claims of the bishops, saying that an exemption "covers ministers of religion such as Catholic priests," the news report said.
English, Welsh bishops say Equality Bill redefines who can be priest (Catholic News Service)