The Court of Appeal has today confirmed that an evangelical foster agency can work exclusively with evangelical carers, but backed Ofsted’s attempt to impose its own definition of what it means to be ‘evangelical’.
Cornerstone Adoption and Fostering, England’s only evangelical Christian fostering agency, is being supported by The Christian Institute and is now seeking to appeal to the Supreme Court.
In 2019, Ofsted demanded that the agency abandon its religious ethos. The regulator accused Cornerstone of unlawful discrimination for only recruiting evangelical Christian carers and requiring 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 a statement issued after the judgment was handed down this morning Pam Birtle, CEO of Cornerstone, said she was “disappointed” but the agency had already ‘won more than it had lost’.
“Ofsted’s attempt to tell us that we could not work exclusively with Christian carers was rejected by the High Court and has been even more firmly rejected by today’s Court of Appeal ruling. It refers to that attempt as “a threatened unlawful act”. (See paragraph 105 of the judgment )
“The Appeal Court also ruled that the High Court judge was wrong to conclude that our policy is not a manifestation of our religion (para. 91). It criticised the lower court for ignoring the fact that Cornerstone carers associate with each other for mutual support (para. 92) in our Christian calling to provide forever families to some of the most hard to place children (para. 141).
Mrs Birtle continued: “But the Court of Appeal has still overlooked the crucial fact that Cornerstone is not recruiting carers under contract to local authorities (para. 8). We recruit carers on our own behalf. It is the placement of children that is done on behalf of local authorities.
“This distinction is absolutely vital since equality law permits religious organisations to uphold their views on sexual ethics in the way they work. Without this exception thousands of religious groups would have been outlawed. We are entitled to rely on the same exception.
“Cornerstone’s trustees are unanimous that we must continue to challenge this decision and so we have lodged an application to appeal to the Supreme Court on the remaining issues in the judgment.
Called to love
“We are convinced that equality law protects our ability to operate in a distinctively evangelical way. For the law to do any less would be a breach of human rights and a denial of the values of a liberal democracy.
“I do this work because I believe in it with all my heart. I was in the care system myself as a teenager and have been a social worker, foster carer and adopter over the last 40 years. I believe we are called by God Himself to show the love of Christ to all people, including people who are LGBT, through doing this work in a uniquely Christian way.
“We invite Christians to join us in praying that a better accommodation will be found that allows evangelicals to play their full part in British public life without unjust restrictions being imposed on them.”
Cornerstone has been supported throughout the process by The Christian Institute.
shocking defence of state over-reach in religious matters
Deputy Director for Public Affairs, Simon Calvert, said: “What the court has done today, in the name of opposing discrimination, is actually to support discrimination by a powerful state regulator against a small voluntary group”.
He continued: “This shocking defence of state over-reach in religious matters fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Christianity”.
Last year, the High Court ruled that Ofsted was wrong to try to force Cornerstone to work with non-evangelical Christian carers, confirming the freedom of Christian organisations to provide activities in line with their statement of faith.
That judgment stated: “Cornerstone is permitted to exclusively recruit evangelical Christian carers because of the exemption in [the Equality Act 2010] for religious organisations.” And contrary to Ofsted’s allegation, it also states that requiring carer applicants to be evangelical “does not violate” human rights law.
However, the High Court also said that Cornerstone cannot require carers to abide by its Christian beliefs on appropriate sexual conduct. The judge ruled that the exception in the Equality Act 2010 permitting religious organisations to impose restrictions on grounds of sexual orientation does not apply to Cornerstone.