An evangelical Christian fostering agency which only places children with heterosexual married couples must change its policy to allow gay couples to foster, a judge has ruled.
In May The Telegraph reported that the the Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service was suing the childcare watchdog, Ofsted, after it was downgraded for “discriminating” against same-sex couples.
The foster agency claimed that Ofsted “came in on a white charger” and went well beyond its powers as a regulator when considering its policy of only placing children in care with heterosexual married couples.
However following legal proceedings at the High Court in Leeds, a judge ruled that the agency needed to change its recruitment policies. In a ruling which is expected to have wide-ranging repercussions for families looking to adopt - as well as religious foster agencies - Mr Justice Julian Knowles ruled that Cornerstone's insistence that applicants are evangelical Christians does not breach the Equality Act, but warned that its policy does breach the act "insofar as it requires applicants to refrain from homosexual conduct".
The judge said that his judgment meant that Cornerstone "must change its recruitment policy to allow gay men and lesbians who are evangelical Christians to apply to become prospective foster parents and it cannot lawfully refuse to do so".
Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: "We are pleased with the outcome of this case. "The court agreed that Cornerstone Independent Fostering Agency's recruitment policy discriminates on the grounds of sexual orientation and is unlawful.
"As a public body, Ofsted has a duty to consider whether the organisations we inspect comply with equality and human rights law.
"This outcome offers much-needed clarity in what is a difficult, complex area of law." Ofsted’s original report accusing the agency of discrimination by only working with evangelical Christian carers in heterosexual marriages has not yet been published. Cornerstone is being supported by The Christian Institute, which defends the religious freedom of evangelical Christians in the UK.
The Christian Institute has been involved in several major court successes, including Ashers Baking Company’s appeal to the UK Supreme Court in 2018. Following the judgement, the Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs Simon Calvert said: “Ofsted has failed in its attempt to turn a small, much-loved Christian agency into another outpost of its ‘muscular liberalism’ worldview.
“Shockingly, it even argued in court that fostering was “a secular act” and that there is no demand for evangelical carers.
“There are 305 other Independent Fostering Agencies in England. Cornerstone is the only one with an evangelical Christian ethos. It achieves excellent results for children and families. And now with this ruling the Court has put beyond doubt that it can continue to recruit only evangelical Christian carers.
“Ofsted tried to use human rights legislation to fatally undermine essential religious exceptions in the Equality Act 2010.
But those exceptions were passed precisely to protect the ethos of faith-based agencies like Cornerstone.
“Cornerstone’s challenge should help protect churches and other religious bodies that rely for their existence on the protections afforded by the Equality Act.”
Mr Calvert 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.
“Cornerstone is a private organisation and places children with those within its existing pool of carers. It does not recruit carers on behalf of local authorities.
“This part of the judgment suggests the court failed to recognise that Christian belief informs and shapes every area of life – including sexual ethics and behaviour. “A decision on whether to appeal will be taken in the coming weeks.”