A Catholic adoption agency has been told it cannot discriminate against gay couples in the latest outcome of an ongoing legal battle that has pitted the rights of same sex parents against religious groups who want to opt-out of anti-discrimination legislation.
Catholic Care, which serves the dioceses of Leeds, Middlesbrough, and Hallam in South Yorkshire, is the only Catholic adoption agency still fighting new rules which came in three years ago and forced adoption groups to accept parents regardless of their sexuality.
All the other Catholic agencies have either stopped placing children or broken away from their diocese and complied with the anti-discrimination rules.
But Catholic Care, which used to find homes for roughly ten children a year, has fought the anti-discrimination legislation in a series of court battles over the past two years.
The charity has been trying to obtain an exemption under the Sexual Orientation Regulations to allow it to continue to operate as it had always done, but the attempt was opposed by the Charity Commission.
Last year the legal arguments went to the High Court where Catholic Care won the right to challenge the anti-discrimination rules. But the Charity Tribunal unanimously ruled today that the agency could not opt-out of equality laws.
In a decision published this morning the tribunal acknowledged there would be “a loss to society if the charity's skilled staff were no longer engaged in the task of preparing potential adopters to offer families to children awaiting an adoption placement.”
But the tribunal judges said they had to balance the risk of closure of the charity's adoption service - which it said was "by no means certain" - against the "detriment to same-sex couples and the detriment to society generally of permitting the discrimination proposed".
During evidence last month the Bishop of Leeds Arthur Roche told the tribunal that he believed the law should respect the Catholic Church's views on this issue in the same way that it allows churches not to have to bless civil partnerships.
But the tribunal ruled that any opt-out was impossible because adoptions are a public service partly funded by local authorities.
Since beginning legal proceedings in 2008 Catholic Care has suspended its adoption services. The charity has claimed that children will be left unadopted if it was forced to comply with equality laws and that potential donors would be put off from giving the charity money. But the tribunal found that local authorities working with Catholic Care have still been able to find suitable parents. The judges also said there was no evidence, except for the bishop's opinion, that donated income would be hit.
Civil rights groups welcomed today's ruling. Naomi Phillips, from the British Humanist Association, said: “When groups are providing public services, not least vital services such as adoption, it is legitimate to prevent unjustified discrimination, as the law seeks to do, in order to ensure that those services are equal, accessible and operate in the interests of those they are helping.“
Laura Doughty, Stonewall’s Deputy Chief Executive, added: “It’s clearly in the best interests of children in care to encourage as wide a pool of potential adopters as possible. There should be no question of anyone engaged in delivering any kind of public or publicly-funded service being allowed to pick and choose their service users on the basis of individual prejudice.”
But Christian groups attacked the ruling. “[Equality] legislation is effectively squeezing out Christians who wish to serve society by requiring that they act against their conscience in matters of sexual ethics,” said Andrea Minichiello Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre which has brought a number of religious battles to court. “At a time when well over 50,000 children in the UK are in need of a home, we cannot afford to exclude those who are willing to provide a crucial service just because they do not agree with a small minority who are pushing a homosexual agenda under the guise of ‘equal rights.’”
In a statement released this afternoon, Bishop Roche announced that Catholic Care was considering whether to appeal the ruling.
“It is unfortunate that those who will suffer as a consequence of this ruling will be the most vulnerable children for whom Catholic Care has provided an excellent service for many years,” he said. “It is an important point of principle that the Charity should be able to prepare potential adoptive parents, a service recognised for its excellence by the local authorities who are responsible for placing children, according to the tenets of the Catholic faith.”
Tribunal decisions can be appealed on a point of law to an upper tier tribunal. With permission appeals can then proceed to the High Court and beyond meaning any final resolution to the issue could be years away of Catholic Care continues its legal fight.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society said: "Catholic Care has spent tens of thousands of pounds of its charitable funds seeking to impose intolerant Catholic doctrine, rather than on the children it is supposed to help. The lion’s share of the money being spent by Catholic Care comes from public funds and that does not entitle it, legally or morally, to be used to subsidise bigotry that would appal most taxpayers."