The charity Catholic Care’s failure in its bid to change its charitable objects in order to exclude gay couples from its adoption services could undermine the confidence of faith groups in the big society agenda, according to an MP.
Speaking at a meeting of the Public Administration Select Committee last week, Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, said many churches and church-funded charities hoped to play an increased role in delivering public services as part of the government’s big society agenda.
He said cases such as this – in which the charity tribunal last month ruled that the social care charity could not change its objects to restrict its adoption services to heterosexual couples – caused these groups to worry about whether they could play a role in public services.
Flynn said he did not support discriminatory practices but warned that the big society agenda was confusing for faith groups.
He said the Bishop of Leeds, Arthur Roche, had said in an interview with the Catholic magazine The Tablet that the church’s confidence in the big society agenda might "crumble" if Catholic Care was forced to close as a result of the case.
But Charles Wookey, the assistant general secretary at the secretariat of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, told the committee that equality law did not usually pose a problem for church groups delivering public services.
"Catholic agencies do other work, such as homelessness projects and youth work," he said. "In many of these cases there is no issue between the service the church wishes to provide and equalities legislation. If there were, the agency would not bid for it."
Asked about the Catholic Care case, Wookey said it presented a "vexed issue" in society. "I don’t think any religious charity ought to be able to claim exemption from the law just because it is religious," he said. "But some religious charities want to be explicit about their ethos. If you say council services have to be provided with quasi-neutrality, you lose something."