An evangelical adoption and fostering agency has been told it can keep its religious ethos following a case in the High Court.
However, the judge also ruled that the agency must allow same-sex couples to foster and adopt.
Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service took the case to court because Ofsted had demanded that the agency abandon its religious ethos.
Ofsted is the government body that inspects and regulates services that care for children and young people, including adoption and fostering services.
It downgraded Cornerstone’s rating because the agency only recruits evangelical carers, in line with its statement of faith and its religious ethos.
Ofsted said this ‘evangelicals only’ policy was discriminatory, but the High Court ruling confirms that Cornerstone can continue to act in this way.
In his judgement, Mr Justice Julian Knowles ruled that Ofsted was wrong to try and force Cornerstone to place children with non-evangelical Christian foster carers.
He said Ofsted was ‘wrong as a matter of law’ and ‘erroneous’ to claim that Cornerstone’s recruitment policy unlawfully discriminates by requiring carer applicants to be evangelical Christians.
The judgement states that ‘Cornerstone is permitted to exclusively recruit evangelical Christian carers’ because of the exemption in the Equality Act 2010 for religious organisations.
Contrary to Ofsted’s allegation, it also states that requiring carer applicants to be evangelical ‘does not violate’ human rights law.
Under the Equality Act 2010, religious charities may restrict ‘the provision of benefits’ to those who share their faith and beliefs. Cornerstone’s right to rely on these provisions was endorsed by the Charity Commission in January 2011.
However, Mr Justice Knowles also ruled that the exception in the Equality Act 2010 permitting religious organisations to impose restrictions on grounds of sexual orientation does not apply to Cornerstone.
This decision hinged on the judge’s finding that Cornerstone recruits its carers on behalf of, and under contract with, local authorities.
But Cornerstone’s lawyers say this part of the ruling is incorrect, and the agency may appeal. The agency also strongly denies that its recruitment process is non-compliant with equality and human rights legislation.
Cornerstone’s chairwoman Sheila Bamber said, ‘The judgement justifies our decision to pursue this legal action. Our right to support Christian families in providing the best possible outcomes for vulnerable children and young people has been upheld.
‘But I am saddened that the fundamental place of biblically based Christian marriage in our beliefs has not been recognised. We will carefully and prayerfully consider how to continue our vocation and work to create forever families.’
Cornerstone was supported by The Christian Institute. Spokesman Simon Calvert said, ‘With this ruling the Court has put beyond doubt that it can continue to recruit only evangelical Christian carers.’
He added, ‘However, along with Cornerstone and its lawyers we believe the judge was mistaken in treating Cornerstone as if it recruits its carers on behalf of local authorities and therefore is not covered by the equality law exception allowing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.’