The British Church and Gay Adoptions

From Britain comes a dilemma capable of exercising grey matter in an ethics classroom – one faced by 13 Catholic adoption agencies, many of which go back to the eighteenth century. From January 2009, when a new Equality Act comes into force, they must either close down, sever their links with the bishops, or fight it out through the courts. The dilemma will be familiar to those who followed the case of the Catholic Charities adoption services in Boston, which was forced to close in 2006 after wrestling with the same Solomonic choices. The dilemma arises from the British Government’s decision last year not to exempt the agencies from one part of the Act, known as the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs). The SORs will make it possible for gay couples to sue any provider of goods and services if they think they have been discriminated against. The Equality Act is the British Government’s implementation of EU equality legislation. Yet the Government controversially decided to include adoption agencies under "goods and services" – which most European governments have not done. In continental Europe, to refuse a gay couple an adoption on the grounds that they are gay is what is known as "legitimate preference": it is no more discrimination to exclude a gay couple from adopting than it is to refuse an elderly couple, or a couple with too small a house, or an unstable lifestyle. The then prime minister, Tony Blair, and other Catholic members of the Cabinet, fought to secure an exemption, but were outvoted by the rest of the Cabinet. In the face of bishops’ pleas, the British Government decided that to exclude gay people was discrimination, and so included adoption services in the law. The decision had a certain logic, given that gay couples have had the legal right to adopt since 2002. But what dismayed Catholics, and believers in religious freedom, was that there was no attempt to take into account the right to manifest religious conviction in the public square and the chilling effect this would necessarily have on faith-based organizations in public life. Unlike the US, and European countries with officially secular states, the British state is technically Christian: if this means anything in practice, it is that Christian organizations which serve the public good are allowed to compete on equal footing with secular ones. So the Government was crossing a line. It was telling Catholic agencies they had to agree with the state’s view that same-sex parents are just as good as heterosexual couples if they wished to continue operating. It was imposing an ideological precondition for their continued existence, a "new morality," in the words of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, which most British people do not share. The decision was especially tragic given that the Catholic agencies are responsible for a mere 4 per cent of all annual adoptions in the UK – although more than half of those children considered hard-to-place. It is absurd to suggest that their policies restricted the right of gay people to adopt. The Government gave the agencies until January to decide what to do. They cannot obey the law without disobeying the teachings of the Church -- the Vatican closed any remaining wriggle room on this point in a 2005 document, signed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, which states that adoption by gay couples "does violence" to children by placing them in "an environment that is not conducive to their full human development." Some have voted to secularize: the Catholic Children’s Society in southeast England recently announced it would sever ties with the dioceses of Arundel and Brighton, Portsmouth and Southwark. The bishop of Nottingham is standing down from the Board of the Catholic Children’s Society, founded in 1938, which will merge in October with the local Anglican diocese. Others, such as Catholic Care in Leeds diocese, will close. The loss of one of the biggest and oldest in the northern English diocese of Salford (which has three offices, including one in Manchester), is a particular blow. But a third option - to defy the laws – has suddenly opened up. The Catholic Children’s Society of Westminster, whose president is Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and which goes back to the eighteenth century, recently announced it would continue its policy of only placing children with married heterosexuals and single people. Its director, Jim Richards, believes a legal defense can be mounted if the charity’s constitution is amended to refer to "married heterosexual couples" rather than simply "couples who wish to adopt." His stance has emboldened one bishop to urge the trustees of his diocese’s agency to follow suit. The outcome of any legal test case – which one gay Christian group has already said it will bring -- is uncertain. But many believe that the issue is worth taking to the wire because of the larger questions involved. Some reason that the Government – especially not one floundering in the polls -- will not risk taking the Catholic Church to court over the issue (or backing a group that did). And even if it did, the publicity would offer a chance for the Church to assert its freedom to serve society according to its own values – and to challenge the growing exclusion of religion from the public square under the guise of equality. Coming on top of a fierce recent Anglican report which criticized the Government’s "religious illiteracy" and the anti-Catholic sentiment accompanying the recent debate over embryology the love-in between British Catholics and the Labor Party is looking distinctly worn. A future spat could well prove the issue on which Gordon Brown loses the pews. Austen Ivereigh
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