Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How important is the row over an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies?

I'm not sure this issue is quite as important as it is being made out to be. This is not really "the death of religious freedom in Britain".

There are many other areas in which we do not accept that religious freedom entails a right to discriminate in who you offer a public service to. This is similar to the case of the Muslim taxi-driver who refused to take a blind woman as a passenger because of her guide dog. Conservative anger at this case was based upon the idea that excluding someone from a public service on the basis of your religious convictions is to treat a fellow citizen unfairly.

Suppose a Muslim doctor did not want to treat a woman patient because he considered such contact unclean; it seems unlikely they would be allowed such an opt-out. Why is the freedom of Catholics to discriminate against gays in offering the public service of an adoption agency a more worthy cause?

The best argument against this would seem to be that adoption isn't really a public service but a private one. As adoption relies upon making judgements about the suitability of people to parent it must exclude vast swathes of the public. As this kind of decision making is central to running an adoption agency this is a service which must, by its very nature, discriminate between different prospective parents on some ground or another and it is right that Catholics are able to run an agency which discriminates on grounds which they think are proper. There is no serious argument that Catholic agencies are really harming the children they are charged with getting adopted and there are other agencies out there which take a different view of gays as parents.

However, note that this problem with the legislation now hinges on the rather thorny question of whether this is a public service or not. I think that makes it an excellent candidate for a free vote and that is what Cameron has given the parliamentary party.

Another reason I don't think that this issue is quite as important as it is made out is that it seems twinning with a secular agency would allow Catholics to continue to avoid working with prospective gay adopters. Is referring gays to your sister organisation which might then allow them to adopt really such a violation of Catholic principle?

I do think this legislation needs rethinking, however, I do not think that it is the death of or even a serious infringement upon religious freedom.

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