The Scottish Government has been seeking a survival route for Roman Catholic adoption agencies to stop them being shut down because of their religious beliefs about marriage.
The agencies only place children with married couples or single people, in keeping with the church’s teaching. But ‘gay rights’ laws mean this policy could be challenged in court.
It has emerged that Scottish Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop lobbied the Westminster Government to give the agencies an “indefinite” exemption from the Sexual Orientation Regulations (SORs) introduced in 2007.
In the event, the agencies, which have a reputation for finding homes for ‘hard-to-place’ children, were given a short-term exemption which ran out at the start of this year.
At least one of the UK’s Roman Catholic adoption agencies has decided to close, while seven others have cut their ties with the Church and changed their policies to allow same-sex couple applications.
Notes from a 2007 meeting between Fiona Hyslop and Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien have now emerged.
The notes record: “The Scottish government position – as she had made clear in speaking to Whitehall – was that it would have been better for the exemption to end 2008 to have been made indefinite.”
The news has drawn criticism from ‘homosexual rights’ lobbyists who say there should be no exemption for religious groups from the SORs.
Tim Hopkins of the Equality Network said: “We would be very disappointed if the Scottish government’s position is that any publicly-funded public service should be allowed to discriminate against any part of the population.”
Fiona Hyslop told the Church she was “comfortable” with the plans of one Glasgow-based agency, St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society, to change its constitution in order to protect itself from a hostile legal challenge.
Her spokesman said: “The Scottish government has always said that Catholic adoption agencies should be able to operate within the teachings of the church. That is a matter of public record, and we have made this view known to UK ministers and the Church itself.
“We understand that St Margaret’s have successfully applied to the Office of the Scottish Charities Regulator for a change in their constitution, and will therefore be referring same-sex couples to other adoption agencies for assessment. That is a decision for the agency and the regulator.”
It is claimed that the SORs make it unlawful for religious adoption agencies to restrict the applications they accept to married couples and single people.
But leading discrimination lawyer Neil Addison has argued that this is the most “fundamentalist” interpretation of the law.
Writing in the Catholic Herald last year, he said: “The SORs cannot be looked at in isolation. You also have to consider human rights protections for religious belief, equality legislation prohibiting religious discrimination and, finally, the Adoption Act itself, which makes the welfare of the child the primary consideration.
“Many questions remained unanswered. For example, is a decision by a Catholic adoption agency only to approve adoption by married heterosexual partners a ‘homophobic’ decision? Or can it be shown objectively to be in the best interests of children?
“Would a refusal by a local authority to approve a Catholic adoption agency be legal under religious discrimination law? And would a requirement that a Catholic agency approves single-sex parents be a breach of religious freedom protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights?
“When you have such a cocktail of law and competing rights you have ample scope for legal argument, negotiation and compromise.”