Tony Blair has announced that there will be no opt-out for Catholic adoption agencies, but that there will be a 21 month delay in the introduction of the law to give them time to adjust.
In an ideal world, clashes of the kind we have witnessed between the government and the Catholic church could be resolved without violence to the law or to conscience. Let us accept that we do not live in an ideal world.
But even in this non-ideal world, the furore and its conclusion have been a shoddy episode that did nobody any credit.
There can, of course, be no question of an ‘opt-out’ from a law. Laws apply equally to everyone, or they contravene the most fundamental principles of a liberal democracy. The Catholic church was foolish to ask for one, and media commentators were foolish to entertain the notion. Equally, however, laws should not generally be introduced which are more onerous to one segment of society than another. In fact, this is the very heart of equalities legislation.
To my mind — though I am not a lawyer — the new legislation seems very carefully framed to avoid creating a crisis of conscience for religious groups. There will be requirements to provide an equal service to lesbian, gay and bi-sexual people, but not a requirement to agree with their views, or to help to propagate them. So, the examples which were emailed to me of Christian printers being forced to print advertisements for gay pride events, or church halls being forced to rent out their premises for a gay burlesque are fatuous. A Christian printer may (if they wish) continue to only print material they agree with, and a Christian venue may continue to rent itself out for events which fit their ethos provided that they do so on the basis of the item or event, not on the basis of the sexual orientation of the person trying to make the booking. On the other hand, a Christian printer who refused to print an advertisement for a fishmonger because the proprietor was gay would quite rightly come under the censure of the law.
Somebody obviously looked long and hard to find the single example — Catholic adoption agencies — of where the law was in fact more onerous on people of a particular religion than on the population at large.
It seems to me that Blair, et al, had two choices. They could have made a case for the fairness of the legislation, and demonstrated that, despite initial appearances, it was not more onerous on Catholics than on the rest of us, or they could have amended the legislation. An opt out was never a legal possibility, and they should have dismissed this the moment it was raised, purely on the basis of its incompatibility with common law.
However, the creation of a 21 month adjustment period is a direct admission that, in fact, the new legislation discriminates on religious grounds against Roman Catholics, and against Christians in general. If it was not more onerous to obey the law, no adjustment period would be required.
At the same time, this debacle has done nothing for the reputation of Roman Catholicism, or for the Anglican archbishops. By placing themselves in public opposition to equal rights legislation, and by doing so in this way, calling for exceptions, rather than for better law making, they have confirmed the view already held by many sceptics: that Christianity is in reality nothing more than a collection of prejudices, and that the established churches exist to preserve their own power and rights. This is deeply unfortunate, since neither the Roman Catholic cardinal nor either of the Anglican archbishops are anything like this at all.
And finally, this has done nothing but confirm the view of all ‘right thinking people’ (ie, those who are in alignment with the Daily Mail) that the world has gone mad, and that political correctness has taken the place of common sense. This is a deeply regrettable viewpoint because, aside from this particular area, the legislation has been very carefully drafted to allow the preservation of conscience on the one hand and personal choice and dignity on the other.
The saddest thing of all is that, in fact, all that would be necessary would be for the legislation to assert the primacy of the rights of the child, and to require adoption agencies to place children in situations which, in the expert opinion of the agencies’ professionals, gave them the best future. It goes without saying that an agency whose ethos began with the notion that Christian marriage was the only basis for a family would not place children in other contexts, but this would not be discriminatory against any particular group in society. And it also goes without saying that where another agency found an evidence-base to suggest otherwise, they would follow this in framing their own policy. This would also open the door for a secularist agency to not place children with firm advocates of Roman Catholicism. Such a clause within the law would be non-discriminatory, because it would apply equally to everyone.
This might sound like special pleading, but it is in fact ridiculous to ask a health or social care professional to distinguish between their ethical foundations and ‘what is best’. Conscience is not simply an add-on. Rather, it informs the entire decision making process.
Ultimately, the question of adoption is not one of satisfying the rights of the adopters, but of serving the needs of the child. This sad controversy has rather given the impression that adoption is about the conflict of will between legislators on the one hand, and agencies on the other.