Adoption is in the news on both sides of the border at the moment. Down south the story is a warning to local authorities from the Government – improve your performance or we’ll enforce outsourcing. In Scotland it’s about St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society and the treatment of same sex prospective adopters.
In fact the two stories relate to the same thing – how can we ensure that children waiting to be adopted are placed with parents in good time? And one way of doing that is to broaden the pool of available adopters out there.
I’m writing here in a personal capacity, but I’m also chair of Scottish Adoption, one of only four voluntary adoption agencies in Scotland. St Margaret’s is one of the other three, and one of two originally established as Catholic agencies. I’m a Catholic gay man who is adopted so it’s an issue I’ve thought a lot about.
St Margaret’s objection to being tied by the law is not news in the adoption world. What is new is a ruling from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) in response to a complaint from the National Secular Society. St Margaret’s preferred criteria is to prioritise couples who have been married for at least two years.
Marriage is not an option for same sex couples – yet. As a charity, St Margaret’s is obliged to provide public benefit and OSCR’s response to the complaint is that the benefits provided by the agency are ‘unduly restricted’ and create a ‘disbenefit’ to same sex couples.
St Margaret’s is taking legal advice. The Education Secretary, Mike Russell, has said he is ‘disappointed’ by the regulator's decision and that the consequences are not in the best interests of the children St Margaret’s helps. He’s due to meet with the agency to discuss the best way forward.
The row is another manifestation of the tension between religious freedom and equality following recent European Court rulings. I think the European Court got it right. I don’t think people should be prevented from wearing religious symbols at work, health and safety permitting.
But I do think that when they’re providing a public service they can’t be allowed to pick and choose who they work with. If you want that choice, the job obviously isn’t for you. It’s not a case of the rights of LGBT people trumping those with religious faith either. Many LGBT people are people of faith too.
And in this instance I don’t think St. Margaret’s or any other agency should be able to pick and choose who gets to adopt for any other reason than the best interests of children. The sexuality of prospective adopters clearly doesn’t meet that test.
The Catholic Church establishment may not like the law, but an organisation which benefits from charitable status must provide public benefit in return. And it shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate about the receipt that benefit.
I don’t want St Margaret’s to disappear. This isn’t because I think it would prevent Catholic parents from adopting. They are free to go to other agencies, though it’s important that all agencies also consider the interests of a child who may grow up to be lesbian, gay or bisexual. But it would be unfortunate to lose the expertise of one of a handful of specialist voluntary adoption agencies.
Adoption is challenging and complex for everyone involved and the interests of children needing to be adopted are best served by a plurality of agencies. It’s for that reason I really hope talks succeed. But they shouldn’t do so at the expense of equality.