OSCR, the Scottish charities regulator, may strip an adoption agency of its charitable status because it discriminates against same-sex couples. St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society is an adoption agency based in Glasgow with ties to the Catholic Church.
The regulator’s investigation was triggered by a complaint that, when selecting parents for adoption, the charity gives preference to couples who have been married for 2 years. OSCR considered this to be a breach of the Equality Act which makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate on the grounds of a ‘protected characteristic’ such as sexual orientation.
OSCR’s finding follows the English Charities Commission’s decision to refuse to allow an adoption agency to amend its constitution to restrict its services to heterosexuals. That decision fuelled public debate and was challenged in the English tribunals but was eventually upheld.
This case is also set to divide public opinion: UK adoption legislation makes it clear that same-sex couples can adopt, but should a charity be restricted from setting selection criteria in accordance with its religious principles? Yes, says OSCR. Whilst there are some religious exceptions to the Equality Act, they do not apply to charities when they are carrying out services for the public, such as an adoption agency.
What does this mean for charities? Charities need to consider whether they discriminate on the grounds of any ‘protected characteristic’ under the Act; these are:
• Gender identity and gender reassignment
• Marriage or civil partnership (in employment only)
• Pregnancy and maternity
• Religion or belief
• Sex and sexual orientation
The law recognises that charities sometimes restrict the kind of people they benefit because this helps prevent or compensate for disadvantage (such as Age UK (previously Age Concern and Help the Aged), or is a justifiable way to achieve a beneficial aim (such a drop in centre for female crime victims who would not go if it was open to men).
St Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society has until 22 April 2013 to amend its procedures and assessment criteria to meet the requirements of the Act or its charitable status will be removed. The decision is open to appeal.Sarah Winter Senior Solicitor, Charities Team