A Christian Foster service has been told it must allow gay parents to sign up as carers, the High Court has ruled.
When Ofsted inspectors deemed Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service's policies discriminatory, the adoption service launched a High Court challenge against the inspector.
An Ofsted report issued in June 2019 downgraded Cornerstone’s fostering work from “Good” to “Requires Improvement”
It accused the evangelical Christian charity of unlawful discrimination because it only recruits evangelical Christian carers.
Ofsted also said it was discriminatory for Cornerstone to require its carers to abide by its code of conduct on living consistently with the charity’s Christian beliefs about marriage between a man and a woman.
In Cornerstone (North East) Adoption And Fostering Service Ltd, R (On the Application Of) v The Office for Standards In Education, Children's Services And Skills , Mr Justice Knowles said the fostering service was legally allowed to recruit based on its religious ethos, but its policy of requiring "applicants to refrain from homosexual conduct" was unlawful.
Justice Knowles found that the adoption services carer’s recruitment policy breached the Equality Act 2010.
Specifically, the service was in breach of section 29 of the EA 2010 read with section 13 or, alternatively, section 19, “because the policy means that Cornerstone will not recruit gay men or lesbians as potential foster carers and that amounts to unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.”
But on discrimination of prospective carers on grounds of religious belief (separate to sexual orientation), Justice Knowles said: “Cornerstone's policy is objectively justified”.
“That is because  of Sch 23 to the EA 2010, which I considered earlier, specifically allows religious organisations such as Cornerstone to discriminate on the grounds of religious belief in relation to various things, including the provision of goods, facilities or services in the course of activities undertaken by the organisation or on its behalf or under its auspices ([2(3)(c)]).”
He concluded by saying “Cornerstone could continue to have a religious ethos whilst not placing a blanket exclusion on those of different or no religion. Cornerstone does not contend that the role of foster carer demands or is enhanced by a particular religion or belief.”
A summary of his principal conclusions are as follows:
- Ofsted did not dispute that Cornerstone's recruitment policy is not unlawfully discriminatory under the EA 2010 on the grounds of religious belief. Cornerstone is permitted to exclusively recruit evangelical Christian carers because of the exemption in  to Sch 23 to the EA 2010 for religious organisations.
- Cornerstone's recruitment policy is unlawfully discriminatory in breach of s 29(1) of the EA 2010, alternatively, s 29(6), in both cases read with s 13 and/or s 19, insofar as it requires applicants to refrain from 'homosexual behaviour'. The policy unlawfully discriminates, directly or indirectly, against gay men and lesbians. The disapplication of the general exemption in [2(3)] of Sch 23 provided by [2(10)] applies because Cornerstone performs functions on behalf of public authorities pursuant to contract.
- Cornerstone's recruitment policy does not violate Article 14 of the Convention read with Article 8, as given effect by s 6 of the HRA 1998, insofar as it requires carer applicants to be evangelical Christians.
- Cornerstone's recruitment policy does violate Article 14 of the Convention read with Article 8, as given effect by s 6 of the HRA 1998, insofar as it requires carer applicants to be heterosexual. Its policy unlawfully discriminates against gay men and lesbians.
- Ofsted's Report does not violate Cornerstone's Convention rights under Articles 9 – 11 and Article 14 of the Convention.
- Ofsted's Report is not unlawful as being in breach of SCCIF.
In a statement on its website, Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service said that it was considering an appeal. Cornerstone’s chairwoman, Reverend Sheila Bamber, said:
“The judgment justifies our decision to pursue this legal action. Our right to support Christian families in providing the best possible outcomes for vulnerable children and young people has been upheld.
“But I am saddened that the fundamental place of biblically based Christian marriage in our beliefs has not been recognised. We will carefully and prayerfully consider how to continue our vocation and work to create forever families”.