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Religious opposition to gay adoption in the UK

by Terry Sanderson

Saturday 3 May 2008

A better Blair legacy

Tony Blair’s public support for gay adoption - in the teeth of religious opposition - was a defeat for bigotry

In 2002, Tony Blair introduced legislation that, for the first time, permitted gay couples to adopt. In 2006, he introduced the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which protect gay people from discrimination in the provision of goods and services. At the same time, he outlawed discrimination on grounds of religion and belief.

From the very beginning, we at the National Secular Society were questioning how these two minorities, which were often in conflict, could be accommodated under the same legal umbrella. It was clear that sooner or later there would be a clash of rights.

Perhaps the definitive confrontation was the row over Catholic adoption agencies. The Catholic hierarchy had demanded exemptions from the Sexual Orientation Regulations, saying that it should not be forced into providing its services to same-sex couples. As we have repeatedly seen, the Catholic Church has a very disturbing bee in its bonnet about homosexuality, and fought bitterly to retain the right to treat gay people unjustly in its adoption service.

Mr Blair, to his credit (or more likely the credit should go to some of his more secular cabinet members and backbenchers), decided that there could be no exemption. The Catholic Church would have to open up its services to gay people, or it would have them taken away. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, that well-known protector of children’s rights went ballistic - as he tends to do when he doesn’t get absolutely everything his own way.

Now the day of reckoning is approaching. The 13 Catholic adoption agencies in this country have until the end of the year to either change their policy or shut down. Three of them have already made their decision. The Diocese of Nottingham has decided to jettison its adoption agency, the Catholic Children’s Society and merge it with a secular body.

The Catholic bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, said he and the trustees of the charity felt they had been forced into the decision, saying by the Sexual Orientation Regulations which were “rushed into law” last year. (Actually, there had been a huge consultation lasting almost two years before these regulations were introduced). “We have been coerced into this, I am not happy about it at all,” said the foot-stamping Dominican bishop. Mind you, he was just following the Vatican’s directive, issued in 2003, which said that to allow gay couples to adopt would be to commit “violence” against the children involved.

In Leeds, the Diocese simply junked its agency, and in Northampton the St Francis Children’s Society will become a secular institution with a “broad-based” Christian ethos. It will merge with the Anglican agency, Family Care, and the new agency will have no formal links to the churches and will be open to applications from gay couples.

The other agencies are still desperately searching for a way to circumvent the law, hoping somehow to remain open while still refusing to consider same-sex couples. They must not be permitted to find some loophole which will permit them to discriminate in ways no one else can.

Handing over adoption services to secular bodies which don’t practice bigotry has to be a step in the right direction. And children who might otherwise not have found a loving home will have a better chance of doing so.

[Published in The Guardian, May 3, 2008]