The Court of Appeal is based at the Royal Courts of Justice in London./ Anthony M. from Rome, Italy – Flickr via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).
A foster agency is seeking to appeal to the UK Supreme Court over its policy of only accepting heterosexual evangelical Christians as potential carers.
Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service, an independent agency based in Doncaster, northern England, said it planned to lodge the appeal to the UK’s final court of appeal for civil cases after a judge dismissed its challenge to a High Court ruling.
Pam Birtle, Cornerstone’s CEO, said on Sept. 24: “Cornerstone’s trustees are unanimous that we must continue to challenge this decision and so we have lodged an application to appeal to the Supreme Court on the remaining issues in the judgment.”
“We are convinced that equality law protects our ability to operate in a distinctively evangelical way. For the law to do any less would be a breach of human rights and a denial of the values of a liberal democracy.”
Cornerstone was founded in 1999 as a “not-for-profit” voluntary fostering agency. It specializes in offering permanent homes to children in the care of local authorities.
In its code of conduct, the agency says it expects carers to “Set a high standard in personal morality which recognizes that God’s gift of sexual intercourse is to be enjoyed exclusively within Christian marriage; abstain from all sexual sins including immodesty, the viewing of pornography, fornication, adultery, cohabitation, homosexual behavior and willful violation of your birth sex.”
The agency brought the case after Ofsted, the body that inspects local authority fostering services in England, rated the effectiveness of Cornerstone’s leaders and managers as “inadequate” in a June 2019 draft report.
Cornerstone challenged Ofsted’s stance at the High Court in London in May 2020.
In a judgment on July 7, 2020, the judge declared that Cornerstone’s recruitment policy was “unlawfully discriminatory … insofar as it requires applicants to refrain from ‘homosexual behavior.’”
“The policy unlawfully discriminates, directly or indirectly, against gay men and lesbians,” he said.
The Court of Appeal upheld the earlier ruling in a verdict issued on Sept. 24, saying that overall Cornerstone’s claim “failed on the facts.”
Following the verdict, Birtle argued that the appeal court had overlooked “the crucial fact” that Cornerstone recruited carers on its own behalf and not under contract to local authorities.
“It is the placement of children that is done on behalf of local authorities,” she said.
“This distinction is absolutely vital since equality law permits religious organizations to uphold their views on sexual ethics in the way they work. Without this exception, thousands of religious groups would have been outlawed. We are entitled to rely on the same exception.”
Catholic adoption agencies in England were forced to close after the government refused to grant them an exemption in 2007 to regulations requiring agencies to place children with same-sex couples if they wished to continue to work with local authorities.
Evangelical Christians comprise around 3% of the UK population of 67 million, while Catholics account for roughly 10%.
Commenting on the Court of Appeal decision on Sept. 24, Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute, a non-denominational Christian charity, said: “It’s right to fight discrimination. And evangelical Christians, though much maligned, have a good track record of welcoming people marginalized by the rest of society.”
“But the law and language of discrimination is in danger of being distorted beyond recognition. What the court has done today, in the name of opposing discrimination, is actually to support discrimination by a powerful state regulator against a small voluntary group.”
He continued: “Today’s Court of Appeal judgment claims ‘religious doctrine does not stand still’ and implies a role for Ofsted and the Equality Act in changing it.”
“This shocking defense of state overreach in religious matters fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Christianity. Hundreds of millions of Christians around the world believe the Bible to be the unchanging and ever-relevant word of God.”
He added: “No gay carers were ever discriminated against by Cornerstone so this ruling does not in any sense ‘right a wrong.’ Instead, Cornerstone is being punished for holding the ‘wrong beliefs.’ Even worse, it is being told what it should believe instead. This is not what equality and human rights law are meant to be about.”
“The Court of Appeal did confirm that Cornerstone suffered a significant interference with its human right to manifest its religious beliefs. We hope there will be an opportunity, in due course, for the Supreme Court to engage further with this and strike a fairer balance of competing rights.”