On July 7, a U.K. judge handed down a “mixed ruling” on a case involving the evangelical Christian charity, Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service in Sunderland. While the judge supported Cornerstone’s right to require that foster and adoptive parents be evangelical Christians, he ruled the charity could not refuse to consider candidates involved in same-sex relationships.
“The judgment justifies our decision to pursue this legal action,” said Sheila Bamber, Cornerstone’s Chairwoman. “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.”
U.K. Christian Charity Sues Inspector
Cornerstone is an independent fostering and post-adoption support agency that was founded in 1999. It is the only evangelical Christian agency of its kind in England, according to co-founder and CEO Pam Birtle, who has been a social worker for at least 44 years. She and her husband have birth, adopted, and foster children of their own. In a video filmed prior to the judge’s decision, Birtle outlined what is at stake in the case.
“Cornerstone tends to take the most hard to place children,” she said. “We have children in large sibling groups. We have children with profound and complex special needs…Our success is based on the passion of the people who come forward, their motivation, their skills, and the support that they get from the team, which is all wrapped up in the fact that we share our same faith base.”
After consulting with its board of trustees and its families, Cornerstone filed a lawsuit in May 2020 against the U.K.’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) over a negative report Offsted had given the charity. According to The Christian Institute (which has supported Cornerstone throughout the case), Ofsted had given Cornerstone a “good” rating in past reports. But in one of two reports it issued June 2019, the inspector downgraded Cornerstone to “requires improvement” on the basis that the Christian charity discriminated against people because of their religious beliefs and sexual ethics. What changed over time was neither the law nor Cornerstone itself, said Birtle, but the culture.
Ofsted gave its negative report specifically to the charity’s independent fostering agency. Cornerstone’s adoption support agency received a “good” rating as usual. The positive report is posted on Ofsted’s website as well as on Cornerstone’s, but the negative report is on neither at the time of this writing. Cornerstone’s website says that Ofsted has not yet published the report in question, one that it must now amend per the judge’s decision.
In his ruling, Justice Julian Knowles wrote that “Cornerstone is permitted to exclusively recruit evangelical Christian carers” because of an exemption in the Equality Act of 2010 (which gives certain protections to religious organizations). But Cornerstone’s policy regarding “homosexual behaviour” is not protected, said the judge, the reason being that “Cornerstone performs functions on behalf of public authorities pursuant to contract.”
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, disputes this conclusion, saying,
Along with Cornerstone and its lawyers we believe the judge was mistaken in treating Cornerstone as if it recruits its carers on behalf of local authorities…Cornerstone is a private organisation and places children with those within its existing pool of carers…This part of the judgment suggests the court failed to recognise that Christian belief informs and shapes every area of life—including sexual ethics and behaviour.
In a press release about the ruling, Cornerstone said, “Had the judge ruled otherwise on the technical local authority point, the court would have necessarily found Cornerstone’s policy to be lawful.”
It is unclear where the judge’s ruling leaves the Christian charity. Cornerstone’s Facebook page lists it as temporarily closed. While Cornerstone is thankful for the judge’s decision in its favor, his ruling on the sexual ethics policy is “non-acceptable,” says Calvert, “and so we will be talking with Cornerstone and their trustees and their lawyers over the coming days about the prospect for appealing that aspect of the ruling.”