Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Fostering, gay rights and the secular law

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Eunice and Owen Johns
In the latest case to be brought to court with the backing of the conservative Christian Legal Centre, High Court judges Lord Justice Munby and Justice Beatson ruled that Eunice and Owen Johns, a Pentecostal Christian couple from Derby, had not been unfairly discriminated against by Derby City Council when it ruled that they could not foster children due to their view that homosexuality is "against God's laws and morals".

In ruling that the decision to reject the Johns' application to foster children was not discriminatory, the judges firmly asserted the secular nature of modern Britain (this is taken from the full ruling, which you can read here):
"Although historically this country is part of the Christian west, and although it has an established church which is Christian, there have been enormous changes in the social and religious life of our country over the last century. Our society is now pluralistic and largely secular. But one aspect of its pluralism is that we also now live in a multi-cultural community of many faiths. One of the paradoxes of our lives is that we live in a society which has at one and the same time become both increasingly secular but also increasingly diverse in religious affiliation. 
We sit as secular judges serving a multi-cultural community of many faiths. We are sworn (we quote the judicial oath) to "do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will." But the laws and usages of the realm do not include Christianity, in whatever form. The aphorism that 'Christianity is part of the common law of England' is mere rhetoric; at least since the decision of the House of Lords in Bowman v Secular Society Limited [1917] AC 406 it has been impossible to contend that it is law."
While the judgement has been greeted favourably by humanist and gay rights groups – Stonewall welcomed the decision to favour "21st-century decency above 19th-century prejudice", while the BHA emphasised the "need to understand that our own prejudices and preferences come second to the needs and rights of those we are helping" – Christian organisations have expressed their dismay at the ruling. In a press statement on the Christian Concern site, the Christian Legal Centre's lawyer, Andrea Minichiello Williams, said:
"The Judges have claimed that there was no discrimination against the Johns as Christians because they were being excluded from fostering due to their sexual ethics and not their Christian beliefs. This claim that their moral beliefs on sex have nothing to do with their Christian faith is a clear falsehood made in order to justify their ruling. How can the Judges get away with this?

“What has happened to the Johns is part of a wider trend seen in recent years. The law has been increasingly interpreted by Judges in a way which favours homosexual rights over freedom of conscience. Significant areas of public life are now becoming out of bounds to Christians who do not want to compromise their beliefs. If Christian morals are harmful to children and unacceptable to the State, then how many years do we have before natural children start being taken away from Christians?"
The Christian argument regarding this case seems to imply that the Johns have been discriminated against simply because of their view on homosexuality – because they are of the opinion that it is wrong, they have been denied the right to foster children. Yet a closer look at the case shows that the Johns' views would have potentially had deeper implications for the children in their care. In the full judgement, you can read details of conversations between the couple and Jenny Shaw, a social worker who assessed their case in July and August 2007:
"I expressed my concerns regarding their views on homosexuality and said that I felt that these did not equate with the Fostering Standards where they related to the need to value diversity, address a child's needs in relation to their sexuality, enhance the child's feeling of self-worth and help the child to deal with all forms of discrimination. I emphasised the need for carers to value people regardless of their sexual orientation. Eunice responded by saying that she could not compromise her beliefs, but that she did value people as individuals and would be able to support a young person on that basis. Eunice informed me that her nephew, who lived in the U.S., is gay, and that she has been to stay with him and his partner, and had not treated them any differently from anyone else.
I discussed with Eunice, four possible scenarios, and asked how she might support the young person: 1) Someone who is confused about their sexuality and thinks they may be gay; 2) A young person who is being bullied in school regarding their sexual orientation; 3) A young person who bullies others regarding the above; 4) Someone in their care whose parents are gay.

Eunice's response to the first situation was that she would support any child. She did not offer any explanation as to how she would go about this. On a previous occasion when the question had been put to Owen, he responded by saying that he would "gently turn them round". In the second situation, Eunice said she would give reassurance and tell the child to ignore it. In response to the third situation, Eunice said she didn't know what she would do. In the case of someone whose parents are gay, Eunice said that it wouldn't matter, and that she would work with any one."
This suggests that a child in the care of the couple who was gay, or who had questions about their sexuality or was experiencing confusion over it would not receive support that was sympathetic to homosexuality and would, if we consider Owen Johns' suggestion that he would "gently turn them around", potentially be exposed to an attempt to "convert" them. Shaw's report of an earlier conversation with Eunice Johns suggested even less willingness to provide support:
"In our initial discussion on this issue, when asked if, given their views, they would be able to support a young person who, for example was confused about their sexuality, the answer was in the negative. Eunice at this time also mentioned a visit she had made to San Francisco, in relation to it being a city with many gay inhabitants. She commented that she did not like it and felt uncomfortable while she was there."
Therefore, if we consider this aspect of the case, it was not just about religious views on homosexuality, but also the kind of care and support a foster child would receive. Given that equality legislation requires that public services are delivered without discrimination "directly or indirectly based on sexual orientation", it seems the right that the decision to reject the Johns' application to foster was the correct one. However, this is not to say that it is not a difficult subject – it would be unfair to doubt the Johns' assertion that all they "wanted was to offer a loving home to a child in need".

There are lots of issues tied up in this story – the secular law, gay rights, discrimination, religious conscience, childhood and sexuality – so there's plenty to debate. Please do share your thoughts in the comments.

Update: Thanks to the Church Mouse for their comment below clarifying the court case. They point out that "the Judges decided not to issue a ruling in this case" and that "The case being brought was hypothetical, in that the Johns had not got to the stage of attempting to foster and so had not been refused. Both parties brought the case voluntarily in advance of any decision in order to seek clarification of the law before any decisions were made." This is important, as this was not clear in the reporting of this case, including here. Do have a look at the full comment.
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