Cornerstone, a fostering and post-adoption support charity that works in the north-east of England, has been downgraded by the inspectorate for holding to its evangelical Christian beliefs.

After receiving inspection results of good’ in 2015 the charity’s fostering work was marked as requires improvement’ in 2019 mainly due to its policy of only recruiting evangelical carers. 

The policy is in line with the Equality Act 2010, and allows the charity to provide a service to a particular community. Cornerstone has taken Ofsted to court to challenge the inspection finding, arguing that if it is upheld it would rewrite equality rules and mean religious organisations could be found guilty of illegal discrimination for operating according to their beliefs. 

The Christian Institute, which is backing the case, liken the attempt to force the charity to recruit from a wider community to that of asking the Labour Party to admit Conservative Party members. 

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The existing laws allow religious organisations to limit their services to people of a particular religion or belief if it is for the purposes of the organisation”; and furthermore it allows them to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation if this is necessary to comply with the doctrine of the organisation”. 

Osted has said that Cornerstone is unlawfully discriminating because its agreements with local authorities mean this exception is disallowed. However, this fails to acknowledge that Cornerstone does not recruit foster carers for local authorities, and any funding it receives follows the child rather than the agency. Second, Cornerstone’s policy does not discriminate on sexual orientation but on religious belief – it excludes all who do not share its statement of faith and code of conduct which simply requires a lifestyle consistent with mainstream Christian views. 

Dr David Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance spoke to the Christian Institute about why this case is so important. He said: Ofsted’s unprompted decision to downgrade this work on the basis of the evangelical theology that has always inspired and sustained it is a disturbing development. Not only does it represent an attempt to redefine the law without parliamentary sanction, but unchecked it also has the potential to greatly weaken the role of religion in civil society – at a time when it is needed more than ever.”

Cornerstone has come under scrutiny several times before. In 2008 the Equality and Human Rights Commission contacted Cornerstone after the 2007 Sexual Orientation Regulations came into force. On this occasion the commission was satisfied with Cornerstone’s policy and position. In 2010 the Charity Commission questioned the charity’s policies but concluded that it was operating lawfully and any discrimination was on the basis of religion and belief and deemed lawful. Ofsted has also stood in the way of the charity’s approval as an adoption agency, with the application submitted in 2016 but still pending. 

The case was heard in the High Court earlier in May, and in the hearings Ofsted’s lawyer described fostering as essentially a secular act”. In response, Mr O’Neill, acting for Cornerstone, said: They are failing in their duty of neutrality, not appreciating that evangelical Christianity in particular, which founds itself on scripture passages, includes the injunction to feed the hungry, and carry out in practice what you believe. So don’t say to me fostering is a secular act. When carried out by Cornerstone, it is the fulfilment of a religious duty.”

Dr Landrum went on to say, in relation to, the role of Ofsted’s head: Although the chief inspector Amanda Spielman advocated muscular liberalism’, this distinctly ideological manœuvre could be more accurately described as secular liberalism’.” 

The judgment is not expected to be handed down for some months.

Dr David Landrum, director of advocacy

"Ofsted’s unprompted decision to downgrade Cornerstone’s work is puzzling and disturbing."