May a Christian fostering agency discriminate on grounds of sexuality? Cornerstone

In R (Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service Ltd)) v The Office for Standards In Education, Children’s Services and Skills [2020] EWHC 1679 (Admin), Cornerstone was an independent fostering agency charity based in the North East of England specialising in offering foster and permanent homes to children in the care of local authorities. Because it was founded on evangelical Christian principles, it would only recruit carers, staff and volunteers who would abide by its Statement of Beliefs and Code of Practice which, inter alia, required them to be evangelical Christians and to refrain from “homosexual behaviour” as described in the Code. In practice, the only potential carers whom Cornerstone accepted were evangelical Christian married couples of the opposite sex. It regarded any other form of sexual activity as sinful [1].

When Ofsted inspected Cornerstone in 2019, it concluded that Cornerstone’s recruitment policy violated various provisions of the Equality Act 2010 and the European Convention on Human Rights read with the Human Rights Act 1998. It required Cornerstone to change its policy. Cornerstone challenged Ofsted’s conclusions [4].

Four principal issues arose on the claim:

“a. whether Ofsted erred in concluding that Cornerstone’s carer recruitment policy breaches the Equality Act 2010 in respect of sexual orientation;

b.  whether Ofsted erred in concluding that the Cornerstone’s practices breach the Human Rights Act 1998;

c. whether the Report (and the recommendations contained in the Report) breach Cornerstone’s rights under Articles 9, 10, 11 and 14 of the Convention as given effect by s 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998;

d. whether Ofsted failed to have regard to the guidance in the Social Care Common Inspection Framework (SCCIF): Independent Fostering Agencies (22 February 2017″ [6].

At [313], Julian Knowles J summarised his principal conclusions as follows:

a. It was not in dispute that Cornerstone’s recruitment policy was lawful under the Equality Act 2010 on the grounds of religious belief because the exemption for religious organisations in part [2] to Sch 23 to the Act allowed Cornerstone to recruit evangelical Christians exclusively.

b. However, Cornerstone’s recruitment policy was unlawfully discriminatory in breach of s.29(1) of the 2010 Act or, alternatively, s.29(6) (in both cases read with s.13 and/or s.19) insofar as it required applicants to refrain from “homosexual behaviour”: “The policy unlawfully discriminates, directly or indirectly, against gay men and lesbians” and the disapplication of the general exemption applied because Cornerstone was performing functions on behalf of public authorities pursuant to contract.

c. Cornerstone’s recruitment policy did not violate Article 14 ECHR read with Article 8 insofar as it required carer applicants to be evangelical Christians.

d. Cornerstone’s recruitment policy did violate Article 14 ECHR read with Article 8 insofar as it required carer applicants to be heterosexual because “its policy unlawfully discriminates against gay men and lesbians” [313].

e. Ofsted’s Report did not violate Cornerstone’s Convention rights under Articles 9 – 11 and Article 14 ECHR.

f. Ofsted’s Report was not unlawful as being in breach of the Social Care Common Inspection Framework (SCCIF): Independent Fostering Agencies(22 February 2017).

On 27 July, in R (Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service Ltd)) v The Office for Education, Children’s Services and Skills [2020] EWHC 2031 (Admin), Julian Knowles J granted permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal against his conclusions that

“Cornerstone’s recruitment policy discriminates directly and/or indirectly against gay men and lesbians, and that such treatment is not justifiable as being a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate aim, and that this conclusion does not breach Cornerstone’s Convention rights” [3].

He agreed that that conclusion raised issues of sufficiently general importance to warrant consideration by the Court of Appeal, but he refused permission on all the other grounds of appeal [3].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "May a Christian fostering agency discriminate on grounds of sexuality? Cornerstone" in Law & Religion UK, 12 August 2020, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2020/08/12/may-a-christian-fostering-agency-discriminate-on-grounds-of-sexuality-cornerstone/

1 thought on “May a Christian fostering agency discriminate on grounds of sexuality? Cornerstone

  1. “It is open to Cornerstone to revise the Code of Practice to make clear that married same-sex couples will be accepted as foster carers.” (Paragraph 5.)

    If that is what he thinks, then clearly Mr Justice Julian Knowles has understood nothing about the case in which he sat in judgment. With the welfare and safety of innocent children at stake, Cornerstone would rather be found dead in a ditch, or (more to the point) cast into the deep with a millstone about its neck, than to change its ancient faith or disobey its conscience, to suit his lordship.

    Knowles doesn’t just mock God. He sets out to bully and to intimidate God. This is likely to end in tears – his own.

    All the bloody history of which we have learnt at school, insofar as some of us thought of it as the record of how men learnt the hard way the need for not allowing the secular state to dictate what churches are allowed to believe, to preach and to practise, is turning out to have been in vain. That bloody lesson has apparently been forgotten already.

    Let us hope and pray that the CA itself grants comprehensive permission to appeal.

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