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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Looking more closely at the Johns judgement


It was quite late when I wrote my post yesterday so I took the trouble this morning to read through the Judgement that was handed down by Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beatson. (Case No: CO/4594/2010 in the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division Administrative Court.) The case was between Eunice and Owen Johns as claimants, and Derby City Council as defendant, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission intervening on the side of the defendant.

The Johns had been deemed by Derby City Council to be unsuitable as foster parents essentially because of their beliefs. These are summarised in the Facts section of the judgement as: "they believe that sexual relations other than those within marriage between one man and one woman are morally wrong." (n.4) They were appealing the decision at the High Court - the appeal failed.

One of the crucial paragraphs is n.93 which has been fairly summarised by various newspapers as indicating that laws protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation should take precedence over laws protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of their religious belief. The reasoning behind this is that if the foster child is homosexual, their "sexual health", and therefore more generally their welfare, may not be protected by a foster carer who has christian views concerning homosexuality.

The judges claimed that there is no "hierarchy of rights" but that Standard 7 of the National Minimum Standards for Fostering and the Statutory Guidance meant that the equality provisions for sexual orientation should take precedence. Earlier in the judgement, a social worker's report was quoted which put things clearly:
Mr and Mrs Johns’ views on same sex relationships, which are not in line with the current requirements of the National Standards, and which are not susceptible to change, will need to be considered when panel reaches it’s [sic] conclusion.
These Standards are a matter of regulation, issued by the Secretary of State, and not therefore debated in Parliament. So the hierarchy of rights has been established effectively by diktat.

An obvious corollary of the reasoning contanied in n.93 of the judgement would be that a Catholic child's welfare would not be protected by those whose ethical beliefs were strongly opposed to Catholic belief. For quite some time now, local authorities have given up any real commitment to placing Catholic children with Catholic foster parents. Don't expect any regulations in the near future to put that right.

n.11 has an interesting nugget from the process in which the Johns were assessed for their suitability to act as foster parents. One of the "main issues" identified by the Fostering Panel was as follows:
The department needs to be careful not to appear to discriminate against them on religious grounds. The issue has not arisen just because of their religion as there are homophobic people that are non-Christian.
Obviously there is some sensitivity around - the Council did not want to be seen to ban the Johns as foster parents because of their religious beliefs, so had to brand them homophobic instead, and to try to drive a wedge between their Christianity and their ethical beliefs - a wedge that the judges happily accepted. further on, it is made clear what kind of Christian you have to be to get approval as a foster carer. In n.22, we read:
Thus the defendant [Derby County Council] says that it has approved foster carers who are very committed Christians who hold to orthodox beliefs – whatever that means – and devout Muslim carers who are similarly committed to their religion, but who in both instances are able to value diversity notwithstanding their strongly held religious beliefs.
Well might the judges make the acerbic observation "whatever that means". Clearly the "devout Muslims" and "orthodox Christians" who can be approved for fostering are precisely those who do not feel the need to believe that "sexual relations other than those within marriage between one man and one woman are morally wrong."

In what I referred to yesterday as "the weird and twisted world of modern British equality law", you can be protected against discrimination only if you are a certain type of Christian - one who is prepared to jettison traditional Christian moral teaching.

The Telegraph has today followed up on the story of Eunice and Owen Johns with a leader article Foster parents defeated by the new Inquisition. I thought that the conclusion was particularly good:
Perhaps there is a historical irony here, because we are witnessing a modern, secular Inquisition – a determined effort to force everyone to accept a new set of orthodoxies or face damnation as social heretics if they refuse. Parliament and the courts should protect people like Mr and Mrs Johns, but have thrown them to the wolves. It is a disgrace. 
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