Adoption row: a victory that should not disguise major concerns

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The ruling of the Scottish Charities Appeals Panel (SCAP) that St Margaret's adoption agency can keep its charitable status was always going to be overblown. For the National Secular Society, it is depicted as a major setback to the equality agenda, a shameful capitulation to homophobes. To some Catholics it represents a victory in an ongoing culture war against the secular liberal establishment. The truth conforms to neither narrative.

To claim that this represents a major setback for LGBT rights is to ignore the fact that no would-be homosexual parent ever enquired to the charity, nevermind complained about it. This campaign was orchestrated by the NSS, rather than anyone with an actual grievance. In the bigger picture homosexual couples wishing to adopt are still recognised as being allowed to do that and have plenty of other options locally.

Nor is this some extraordinary Catholic fight-back. True, after a string of defeats this shows that there is a legal solution to being a Catholic agency without having to place children with gay couples. However this solution will certainly be challenged and is unlikely to last.

The only result, after months of spent time, energy and money is that the status quo has been maintained. It would constitute no more than a footnote except for the significance of a few arguments used by the NSS, accepted by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) and finally rejected by SCAP.

Most significant was the argument put to the courts that St Margaret's was not a religious charity (and, therefore, Article 9 of the ECHR on religious freedom did not apply). The OSCR accepted that because St Margaret's was an adoption agency it could not also be a religious charity. It was ruled a religious charity’s primary purpose had to be religious, for the NSS specifically worship activities. The NSS and OSCR also disputed the idea that St Margaret's was a Catholic charity since its services are not available only to Catholics.

SCAP overruled this – judging that St Margaret's was both an adoption agency and a Catholic charity. If the OSCR ruling had stood there would have been serious implications for Christian charity.

The NSS have revealed their vision of how Catholic charities should operate – limited to worship-based activities affecting only Catholics. This would curtail the rights of religions to run charities with their own ethos. They would become either insular operations unable to work beyond denominational boundaries or secular NGOs, unable to express their motivations honestly. This vision should be more worrying to Catholics than homophobia debates.

The SCAP ruling is welcome, but clearly Catholics must do more to defend their right to engage in charity. If a court can put that in doubt that is very worrying (albeit that ruling was overturned). It's not about adoption agencies, or clever legal loopholes. More important is to make a strong principled, theoretical case for all Catholic charity and the validity of a religious ethos. A failure to do this risks more than losing the charitable status of a lone adoption agency.

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