A self-inflicted wound: Ofsted, the Equality Act and Cornerstone

6 May 2020

The Christian Legal Centre’s Roger Kiska comments on the case of the Cornerstone Adoption and Fostering Service.

On 6 and 7 of May, the High Court is set to hear a judicial review by Cornerstone Adoption and Fostering Service against an unfavourable Ofsted report claiming that Cornerstone discriminates against same-sex individuals and non-Christians by operating a faith-based charity which facilitates fostering and adoption relationships exclusively for Evangelical Christian carers. This is not the first time that Cornerstone has faced legal hurdles over its Christian charitable objectives. Furthermore, it is certainly not the first time that a public authority has acted in a way that damages both the Christians involved and in a very real way, society at large.

The case is supported by the Christian Institute.

Cornerstone’s struggles are ‘our’ struggle

The truth is that Cornerstone’s history of legal struggles to simply remain faithful to its Christian ethos is emblematic of the struggle of Christians in the public square in general. Cornerstone is a charity which recruits evangelical foster carers to provide loving and stable homes for children with complex needs. Every child is placed with an aim to permanence. So successful has their mission been that Cornerstone has facilitated the transition to adoption for nearly 80 percent of the children it has placed. In the 20 years that the charity has provided this amazing service, there has not been a single adoption breakdown in the organisation’s history.

Despite their wonderful work, and their incredible success, in 2008 they were contacted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) over their recruitment policy. This followed the well-publicised closure of most Christian adoption agencies in the United Kingdom because of the 2007 Sexual Orientation Regulations. Cornerstone was able to satisfy the EHRC that their recruitment policy of evangelical Christian families severed their charitable purposes and was also a key to their success in maintaining such an impressive fostering track record. In 2010, Cornerstone had further issues, this time with the Charity Commission, which questioned why the organisation required its carers to be Christian. They were also able to satisfy the Commission that their charitable aims were consistent with exceptions laid out in the Equality Act 2010 for faith-based organisations. Yet the battles would only continue.

Ofsted’s issues with Cornerstone began in 2016 when the charity applied to become registered as a Voluntary Adoption Agency. Ofsted claimed that Cornerstone discriminated on grounds of religion or belief by excluding non-Christians, as well as on the basis of sexual orientation. Despite giving a full explanation, citing the aforementioned exception to the Equality Act for religious organisations, Cornerstone’s application remains outstanding. Finally, in March 2019, Ofsted downgraded its assessment of Cornerstone from good across the board (a conclusion it reached just 4 years earlier), to “requires improvement”, suggesting that it was guilty of unlawful discrimination against same-sex couples.

Christian bias hurts us all

Whatever the end-goal of Ofsted in picking this fight, what is clear is that the people who suffer the most are children in dire need of good foster parents. Political correctness and Ofsted’s campaign to make the Equality Act’s exemption for faith-based organisations dead letter is not only self-serving, it is also undemocratic and dangerous. Christian organisations like Cornerstone provide an invaluable service for British society. Trying to push them out of the public square is a self-inflicted wound to an already broken marriage culture.

Cornerstone also raises a more serious and ominous question. Is the equality agenda making second class citizens out of Christians? After all, it was not that long ago that Christian magistrate Richard Page was removed from office for suggesting in closed chamber deliberations about an adoption matter that a child does best with a mother and a father. Despite the fact that his comments were made to challenge a one-sided report lauding the benefits of same-sex parenting as being better than opposite couple parenting; and despite his reservations about one of the adopting parties whose record showed a red flag from an earlier incident, Richard was labelled as bigoted and homophobic. Richard’s position was that as a magistrate in the family division with numerous years’ experience, he was doing exactly what he should have been doing, and that is acting in the best interests of the child involved.

The marginalisation of Christian belief was also central to a decision to deny Eunice and Owen Johns the opportunity to serve by fostering. The Johns had for years been caring fosterers to troubled children who were temporarily placed with them while their families were going through various issues, including drug dependency and domestic abuse. After taking a break from fostering for several years, Eunice and Owen re-applied to foster but the political climate had changed, and devout Christian belief was no longer a welcome trait for fosterers to have. Their Local Council rejected their application on the basis that their deep Christian faith and views regarding homosexual behaviour could have a detrimental impact on any child they might foster. The EHRC – the same EHRC who took issue with Cornerstone – filed a brief in the Johns’ judicial review of their foster application rejection. In that brief, they claimed that the Council had made the correct decision in that allowing people like the Johns to foster ran the risk of ‘infecting’ the foster children with Christianity.

Discrimination in the name of equality is still discrimination

The common thread in all of these instances is that in the name of equality, Christians suffered significant legal detriments. These individuals, as well as Cornerstone and the many other adoption agencies who were forced to close because of sexual orientation laws, are being vilified simply for wanting to stay true to their Christian faith. If Britain is really the bastion of pluralism and tolerance that many in the political class claim it to be, perhaps it is time to allow Christians to enjoy the same rights and privileges as those who disagree with the Christian worldview. The one overwhelming fact is that society would only benefit from doing so. Indeed, if the equality project is so fragile that it would fall away simply by allowing Christian organisations to remain true to their ethos while providing invaluable services, then perhaps it wasn’t much a project to begin with.

My prayers are with Cornerstone and for the many foster children affected by what will no doubt be a landmark ruling.

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