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The last Catholic adoption agency in Britain

Religious freedom and gay rights are colliding in Britain as a prominent charity is being forced to choose between offering adoptions to same sex couples or following the teachings of its church. The impasse began in 2006 with the passing of Britain's Equality Act and culminated a few weeks ago with the charity, Catholic Care, losing an appeal for an exemption.

The Equality Act and the subsequent Sexual Orientations Regulations in 2007 mandated that all British adoption agencies allow same sex couples to adopt. Then prime minister Tony Blair said, according to an article in the Guardian, there was "no place" for discrimination in British society. As anti-discrimination laws increasingly conflict with religious freedom claims across the world, religious groups are scrambling for ways to adjust the balance between private belief and public practice.

There were three ways for Catholic adoption agencies to comply with the law in Britain:

1. Stop being a Catholic charity by cutting ties with the Catholic Church and allow same sex adoption services.

2. Cease all adoption placement work.

3. Seek an exemption from the law for religious reasons.

According to, Britain's eleven Catholic adoption agencies fought the passage of the 2007 Sexual Orientations Regulation. After it passed, three agencies severed their ties with the church and pursued an open door policy. Seven ended offering adoption placement. This left Catholic Care having to make its own decision.

An article on, article said, "Although some bishops and clergy may not feel able to sit on the boards of such agencies, it is argued that this does not necessarily alter their Catholic heritage, charism and ethos."

Catholic Care, however, thought differently.

The charity began working with orphans in 1865 and began adoption services in the 1920s. Since 1963 Catholic Care assisted in the placement of more than 1,388 children in the Leeds area. There were, however, other sources for same sex couples to adopt children. But Catholic Care followed Catholic definitions of family and morality. They looked to place children with a married man and woman or with a celibate single. The new laws set up the question of the limits of religious freedom and traditional Christian definitions of morality versus a government's new definitions of equality and morality.

After a temporary exemption period expired, Catholic Care applied to the government's Charity Commission for a permanent exemption.

It was denied.

They asked the Charity Tribunal to reverse the decision.

They wouldn't.

By 2010, the charity applied to the High Court to review the decision of the Tribunal. The Bishops of Hallam, Leeds and Middlesbrough said in a statement that the government was asking the church "to operate our service with disregard to the Church's teaching on marriage and family life."

In March 2010, Catholic Care received what it thought was a positive ruling from the High Court that gave them some grounds to seek an exemption. It was now back to the Charity Commission to see if they could qualify for exemption from being forced to adopt children to same sex couples.

In August 2010 the Charity Commission for England and Wales again refused to give Catholic Care an exemption. A spokesman said, "'The Charity is very disappointed with the outcome. Catholic Care will now consider whether there is any other way in which the Charity can continue to support families seeking to adopt children in need."

But they didn't give up.

The Charity filed an appeal in September 2010 with the Charity Tribunal, asking that the Charity Commission's decision be reviewed. A spokesman said at the time that, "The Charity is not seeking to prevent same sex couples from adopting children; the Charity is simply seeking to ensure that it can deliver a valuable service in accordance with both the law and the religious ethos of the Charity."

The charity also claimed that an adverse decision would lead to a decline in Catholic donations which would "lead to the closure of the Charity's services."

The Bishop of Leeds Arthur Roche told the tribunal in March 2011 that he believed the tribunal should look at this the same way the government doesn't force the Catholic Church to bless civil partnerships.

The Charity Tribunal made their decision a few weeks ago. They said that it would be "a loss to society if the charity's skilled staff were no longer engaged in the task of preparing potential adopters to offer families to children awaiting an adoption placement."

But the tribunal decided, in the end, that it was better to have no services provided at all than to allow such an agency to exist because of the "detriment to same-sex couples and the detriment to society generally of permitting the discrimination proposed."

The tribunal decided that adoption is a public service and so it is not the same as private worship such as blessings and so there should be no exemptions. They also didn't buy the argument that donations would drop if they were forced to adopt children to same sex couples, and so the agency would not have to close for financial reasons.

"Catholic Care is very disappointed with this ruling," Bishop Roche said. "It is unfortunate that those who will suffer as a consequence of this ruling will be the most vulnerable children for whom Catholic Care has provided an excellent service for many years. It is an important point of principle that the Charity should be able to prepare potential adoptive parents … according to the tenets of the Catholic faith."

Laura Doughty, the deputy chief executive of Stonewall, a gay equality charity in Britain, reacted to the news. She said in a statement, "It's clearly in the best interests of children in care to encourage as wide a pool of potential adopters as possible. There should be no question of anyone engaged in delivering any kind of public or publicly funded service being allowed to pick and choose their service users on the basis of individual prejudice. This ruling makes the law in this area crystal clear."

It many ways it was a fight reminiscent of a Catholic adoption service's battle in Massachusetts back in 2006, the same year Catholic Care's woes began. Catholic Charities in Boston was refused an exemption by the state from the requirement to place foster children with same-sex couples.

Robert P. George, a leading conservative Catholic intellectual and a member of the Deseret News editorial board, said this and the 2006 Boston example are wake up calls. "For several years people who have been promoting the idea of legal recognition for same sex partnerships have maintained that such recognition would have no affect on people of faith and others who in good conscience do not believe such relationships are morally valid. These attacks on the rights of faith-based adoption services reveal what many of us have long suspected, and that there was no truth in these assurances."

Catholic care is weighing whether to appeal the tribunal's decision.