UK evangelical Christian adoption agency to fight discrimination claim in court

Courtesy of Becket
Courtesy of Becket

A Christian fostering agency in the U.K. is taking a government regulator to court for deeming its policy of only placing children with committed evangelical Christians unlawfully discriminatory against same-sex couples.

The High Court in Leeds is scheduled to have a judicial review of the watchdog Ofsted’s actions against Cornerstone Adoption and Fostering Service in North East England on Wednesday and Thursday, says The Christian Institute, a nondenominational Christian charity supporting the agency in the legal battle against being forced to abandon its religious ethos.

Last year, Ofsted downgraded Cornerstone’s fostering service from “Good” to “Requires Improvement.”

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Calling Ofsted’s decision “heavy-handed,” the Institute says “the case has huge consequences for Cornerstone and will have far-reaching implications for other organizations.”

The Rev. Sheila Bamber, chairwoman of Cornerstone’s board of trustees, said Ofsted’s judgment was “seriously flawed and discriminatory,” according to The Christian Institute.

“Ofsted is not a judicial body and is not equipped to make definitive legal statements about Cornerstone’s compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998,” she said. “In so doing, Ofsted has acted beyond its remit and has misapplied the law. We maintain that this judgment displays a seriously flawed and discriminatory approach to our service.”

Simon Calvert, deputy director of The Christian Institute, pointed out that England has 306 independent fostering agencies and asked, “Why is Ofsted insisting that non-evangelicals must also be able to use England's only evangelical fostering agency?”

Cornerstone was launched in 1999 and its principles include "finding loving, two-parent, ‘forever’ homes" where children "can grow and develop to the best of their abilities." While all carers are Christians, it maintains that all children "obviously have a right to choose what they believe."

In 2008, after new equality laws came into force, the Equality and Human Rights Commission challenged Cornerstone’s policy of only recruiting evangelical Christian foster carers. The charity was able to successfully respond.

Two years later, the Charity Commission also questioned the charity’s policy and asked why it should be exempt from religious discrimination law. After Cornerstone filed its response, the regulator concluded that Cornerstone’s policy was lawful on the basis that it seeks to provide a distinctly Christian-based adoption and fostering service.

“The positive outcome in this case demonstrated that Christian organizations do not need to compromise their beliefs in order to remain within the law,” The Christian Institute’s solicitor advocate, Sam Webster, explained at the time. “The case highlighted how important it is for Christian charities to get their foundational documents right and to apply them in practice in a consistent and faithful way.”

Cornerstone Chief Executive Pam Birtle says the agency may be small, but it plays an important role, especially with hard-to-place children, and there have been no adoption breakdowns during its 20-year history.

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