Christians who believe that they are exempt from equalities legislation are no different from Muslims trying to impose Sharia law in Britain, Trevor Phillips has declared.

Speaking at a debate in London on diverse societies, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) backed new laws that 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.

“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.”

Mr Phillips argued that Catholic adoption agencies were providing a public service so should adhere to sexual orientation equality laws and not put up opposition to gay couples even if it conflicted with their religious beliefs.

He added that faith groups should be free to follow their religious rules in their own settings but that these should be left “at the door of the temple” to give way to “public law” as laid down by parliament.

While secular groups have welcomed the comments, the chairman’s remarks have been met with condemnation by religious leaders who have branded them “totalitarian”.

“Trevor Phillips in the past has argued for respect for Christian conscience,” former bishop of Rochester, The Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, told the Daily Mail.

“I am very surprised that here he seems to be saying there should be a totalitarian kind of view in which a believer’s conscience should not be respected.”

However, Keith Porteous Wood from the National Secular Society agreed with Mr Phillips, stating that for an equal society there cannot be “endless exemptions” for religious groups.

He added: “There is no such thing as partial equality, and every time an exemption is made, someone else’s rights are compromised.”