In a unique test case that set the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church against the law of the land, a Catholic adoption agency has been told it cannot turn away gay couples if it wants to keep its charitable status.
Catholic Care, a voluntary adoption agency based in Leeds, asked the Upper Tribunal to sanction its refusal to recognise same-sex couples as potential adopters and to restrict its services to “Nazarene families” of father, mother and child.
But the Charity Commission fought the case every inch of the way, insisting that the charity’s stance was “divisive, capricious and arbitrary” and “demeaning” to the dignity of homosexual couples whose parenting abilities are “beyond question”.
Yesterday the commission won the debate when the tribunal ruled that Catholic Care had failed to come up with “weighty and convincing reasons” why it should be allowed to discriminate against gay couples on grounds of their sexual orientation.
The long-established adoption agency said during the case that it would be forced to close if it lost the dispute.
Catholic Care argued its work in finding new homes for “hard to place” children is of enormous social value and saves the public purse £10m a year by removing youngsters from the care system.
If banned from recognising only married heterosexual couples as potential adopters, it argued children would be the losers as its funding through donations would inevitably dry up and it would have to close.
However, Emma Dixon, for the commission, told tribunal judge Mr Justice Sales that Catholic Care’s stance was in clear violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which outlaws discrimination on sexual orientation and other grounds.
She argued that, if the agency won the argument, the door would be wide open for other charities “to engage in acts of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics, on the basis only of the irrational or bigoted prejudices of its donors”.
“That would be a situation of the utmost concern to the commission and, it is suggested, would plainly be contrary to the public interest”.
She added: “A requirement to operate within the tenets of the Church cannot constitute Article 14 justification. To do so would be to offer protection to the substance of the Church’s belief that homosexuality is sinful.
“To do so would not only be divisive, capricious and arbitrary, it would be excluding from assessment couples whose personal qualities and aptitude for child-rearing are beyond question.”
The barrister observed that Catholic Care’s stance would also exclude a celibate Catholic same-sex couple, however suitable as parents, from its adoption service.
Referring to the agency’s “unusual predicament”, its counsel, Monica Carss-Frisk QC, said the commission’s focus on the rights of same-sex couples, rather than children in need of adoption, was “tantamount to putting the interests of the helper before those of the helpless”.
Insisting that Catholic Care’s stance is consistent with human rights laws, she told the judge: “There can be relatively few social problems more acute than the adoption crisis in England and Wales. The contribution of the charity to seeking to resolve that problem is accepted by all sides to be important and significant.”
Ruling on the case yesterday, the tribunal said Catholic Care’s arguments that its funding would dry up and some potential adopters would not come forward if it were forced to close “cannot furnish the weighty and convincing reasons required to establish objective justification for its proposed practice of discrimination”.
The ban on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation was clearly established and Catholic Care could not be permitted to follow “some less demanding standard” in order to meet the tenets of the church.