The Charity Commission must continue to resist Catholic Care's efforts to circumvent the law, says Daniel Phelan
Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds) has won its case in the High Court forcing the Charity Commission to review its decision that the adoption charity could not be allowed to discriminate against gay couples by virtue of an exemption from equalities legislation. The Bishop of Leeds, the Right Reverend Arthur Roche, said that "without being able to use the exemption, children without families would be seriously disadvantaged".
Some people will find this hard to swallow coming from an institution that has for decades refused to acknowledge or properly deal with the child abuse crimes of its clergy without any apparent regard to the emotional wellbeing of the young victims. However, it does focus on an important and difficult area of law where the rights of the individual to hold and act on a belief come up against the rights of people not to be discriminated against.
In what many people say is an increasingly secular world, some ask how much weight can realistically be placed upon what they see as irrational or even superstitious beliefs. Others suggest that when establishing where to draw the line between religious freedom and other peoples’ rights we should look at the funds involved because, they argue, state funding should not be available for discriminatory practices, even those which are faith-based (an argument rejected in the Catholic Care case).
The charitable status of religious organisations was debated for centuries before the arrival of the Human Rights Act. Given the large number of religious charities, conflicts like those underlying the Jewish Free School and the Catholic Care cases are unlikely to diminish and will be a constant thorn in the side of the Charity Commission.
But should being good at delivering a difficult service mean you can blackmail the law into accomodating your bigotry? Or has the time come for the Commission to redouble its efforts to identify harm in the context of the public benefit of religious charities and weed out those that seek to circumvent the law?
Daniel Phelan is editor-in-chief of Civil Society Media