Editor’s Note: CNN’s Richard Allen Greene files this report from London.
Denied permission to foster children because their Christian beliefs won’t let them say homosexuality is OK, a British couple took their local council to court Monday. It’s a groundbreaking case, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission said.
“It’s raised a really interesting question that needs to be addressed, and we are very keen to see what the court will decide in this case,” the commission’s Zena Ambrose said, adding that the case was “broad-ranging and sets a legal precedent.”
“How do you balance between a person’s right to practice their religion and the right to have a sexual orientation?” she asked. Eunice and Owen Johns are suing the Derby City Council to force a clarification in British law, their legal team said Monday.
They applied to be foster parents in January 2007, but their application was halted later that year, they say.
The Johnses’ “orthodox Christian views on the practice of homosexuality and their commitment to attending church with their children came to the notice of a social worker. As a result of this they were withdrawn from the process,” says the Christian Legal Centre, which is assisting them.
“If the court believes that Christian views on homosexuality can be discriminated against, the state has taken a position on a moral question; namely that such religious belief is morally problematic,” said Andrea Minichiello-Williams, the director of the legal group.
She said it was “a remarkable reversal in the concept of the public good and the traditional definition of sexual morality” that the court even needed to consider whether traditional Christians were fit to be foster parents. The city council declined to comment on the case because it is ongoing.
The council, in northern England, has a shortage of foster parents, it said in a statement last month unrelated to the case.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is involved in the case as an adviser, explaining relevant law to the judge, Ambrose said. It is not taking sides.
The High Court judge will have to balance competing rights, since it is against British law to discriminate on the basis of either religion or sexual orientation – in this case, against Christians or against gay people. Relevant human rights law suggests that freedom of religion is not absolute, Ambrose said.
“There is case law that establishes that the right to practice religion can be curtailed,” she explained. “You can’t use religion as a way of saying you are allowed to treat somebody else less humanely.”
The case has echoes of other recent legal actions in Britain. A Catholic adoption agency was told this summer by England’s Charity Commission that it could not place children only with heterosexual parents.
And the British Supreme Court sided against a Christian woman who said she was was forced to quit her job for refusing to register same-sex civil partnerships.
The High Court case is expected to wrap up Tuesday. It’s not clear how long it will take for a ruling.