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Adoption agency renews fight to stay open

The last remaining Catholic adoption agency in England and Wales has renewed its battle to stay open.

Catholic Care, which serves the dioceses of Leeds, Middlesbrough and Hallam, wants to continue its policy of assessing only married heterosexuals and single people as potential adopters and foster parents.

The Charity Commission has twice rejected its applications to change its statutes to allow this on the grounds that such a policy was unjustly discriminatory towards homosexual couples and in breach of both European and British equality and human rights laws.

But lawyers acting for the agency have challenged the legality of the Commission’s position, saying its interpretation of the law was simply “wrong”.

They have lodged an appeal against the Commission’s decision and have also accused Commissioners of effectively ignoring a ruling in favour of the agency by a High Court judge in March.

The appeal will focus primarily on whether the Commission was correct in dismissing the arguments of Mr Justice Michael Briggs when he supported the agency’s application.

Sir Michael had also been severely critical of the regulator’s stance, describing it as “neither logical, rational, purposive nor responsive to any reasonable linguistic interpretation”. He ordered the Commission to reconsider its position and to pay the costs of the case.

Benjamin James of London-based Bircham Dyson Bell Solicitors, representing the agency, said the Commission was wrong to reject the application of Catholic Care in the light of Sir Michael’s ruling.

“The Commission was wrong in its decision,” he said. “The Charity Tribunal will request that the Charity Commission responds within 28 days. Once the Commission has responded there will be a directions hearing deciding how the case will be managed.

“The actual appeal is on whether the Charity Commission correctly interpreted Sir Michael’s judgment.”

Catholic Care is the only Catholic adoption agency of 11 in England and Wales to continue to fight through the courts regulations passed in 2007 to prohibit discrimination against gay people in the provision of goods and services. The other agencies have either broken from the Church or closed down.

Before the regulations went into effect last year the Catholic adoption agencies annually found new homes for about 250 children, many of them categorised as “difficult to place”. Catholic Care dealt with about 10 children a year.

In the last three years there has been just one recorded instance of a gay couple approaching a Catholic agency and the pair were referred elsewhere.

Lawyers for Catholic Care are arguing that Section 193 of the 2010 Equality Act, which incorporates the 2007 Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs), allows limited discrimination in pursuit of charitable objectives.

The law, which came into force on Friday last week, says charities can discriminate if their actions represent a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim or for the purpose of preventing or compensating a disadvantage” linked to a charity’s characteristics.

Catholic Care understands this to mean that it can both comply with the law and operate according to Catholic teaching that gay adoption is “gravely immoral”.

But rejecting the agency’s application and the March ruling of the High Court, Andrew Hind, the chief executive of the Charity Commission, argued that such “discrimination can only be permitted in the most compelling circumstances”.

He acknowledged that Catholic Care provided a “quality, high-value adoption service”, but he also said that he believed that the agency’s demise would not matter because the numbers of children it dealt with were small and that these could be placed with “prospective parents through other channels”.

“Discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation is a serious matter because it departs from the principle of treating people with equal respect,” he said in his ruling published in August.

The position of the Commission has been vociferously supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and by gay and secularist groups.

Last month Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds was named as a candidate for “Bigot of the Year” by Stonewall, the campaigning gay rights organisation, for encouraging Catholic Care to fight the SORs through the courts.

His nomination came just days after Pope Benedict XVI alluded to the fate of the Catholic adoption agencies when, in a speech in Westminster Hall, he appealed to British politicians to permit the Church to serve the common good in accordance with its own teachings.

The Pope said that laws requiring “Christians to act against their conscience” were “worrying signs of failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square”.