Another Christian Adoption Agency Burdened by State-Sponsored Intolerance

Thomas Messner /

The list of cases illustrating conflicts between homosexual rights and religious freedom continues to grow.

According to a story published earlier this month, a Catholic adoption agency in the United Kingdom has been told that if it wishes to provide adoption services, it must be willing to facilitate adoptions involving homosexual couples, even though doing so would violate Catholic teachings.

The burden on the charity’s religious freedom reportedly stems from laws that confer protected status on sexual orientation. As a result of these laws, of 12 Catholic adoption agencies in the U.K., six have reportedly “secularized themselves” by cutting ties with the Church and changing their standards. Five other agencies, “unwilling to change their faith-based standards,” have reportedly stopped providing adoption services altogether.

Now, Catholic Care—reportedly the last of the agencies still fighting the issue—has suggested that it too might be forced to close if not permitted to operate in a way that honors its religious principles. As the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance explains in commenting on this case, it is “[d]ifficult to see in that a great victory for tolerance, children, families, [or] gay persons.”

Unfortunately, cases like these are not unique to the United Kingdom. In the United States, Catholic Charities in both Boston and the District of Columbia have been forced to stop providing adoption services when public officials refused to ensure they could do so in ways that honored their religious commitments. A similar conflict has emerged in Illinois, where state officials are “investigating whether religious agencies that receive public funds to license foster care parents are breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turn away openly gay parents.”

Some people might argue that people and groups should be free to honor religious beliefs and practices as long as they do so privately. The tribunal in the Catholic Care case, for example, in discussing certain sources of law, cites “the essential distinction between private acts of worship such as blessings and the provision of a public service such as an adoption agency.”

But the “public-private” argument overlooks the fact that it is precisely religious beliefs and motives that lead many people and groups to offer charitable services to the public in the first place. As President Obama said when campaigning in 2006, “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square….[T]he majority of great reformers in American history…were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.”

Further, the “public-private” argument suffers from a certain double standard when deployed in these contexts. Laws protecting sexual orientation do not limit those protections to expressions of sexual orientation made only in private—indeed, such laws are very much oriented to “public” expressions of sexual orientation.

Therefore, the policy issue presented in these kinds of cases cannot be decided based on misguided distinctions between public and private conduct. Rather, the fundamental question is how to balance freedom from government-imposed burdens on religious and moral conscience with demands by homosexual-rights activists for state coercion of other private citizens.

If the issue was whether homosexual couples have the legal right to adopt children or access to adoption services in general, then maybe one could understand the zero-sum approach some proponents of homosexual rights take in these cases. But when there is no question that homosexual couples have the legal right to adopt children and access to a variety of adoption services, these cases should be understood as attempts to use the law to propagate and enforce the belief that traditional understandings of marriage, family, and sexuality are a form of irrational prejudice and bigotry that should not be tolerated.

This position harms people and institutions that support traditional understandings such as marriage as one man and one woman, and it threatens to raise the stakes of certain public policy debates by turning them from “culture wars” into “conscience wars.”

Crucially, “[m]oral deliberation cannot—and should not—be avoided, even in law and policy.” As this Heritage Backgrounder explains,

In a society that aims to judge people by “the content of their character,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, moral deliberation is a constant responsibility for individuals. Further, as President Barack Obama said when campaigning in 2006, “Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo–Christian tradition.” On some issues, such as how to define marriage or whether taxpayer money should be used to pay for abortions, the government cannot avoid taking a position on the moral questions presented.

In many cases, however, “government overreach raises the stakes of moral discourse and encourages intolerance on the part of private citizens.”

When civil liability or equal access to government benefits depends on private citizens adopting the “official” state position on controversial moral issues, the potential for infringement of religious liberty and rights of conscience is clear. As the diversity of moral viewpoints in society increases, the number of social conflicts will only rise.

One way to reduce the conflict in seemingly intractable cultural debates is to respect religious freedom and right of conscience. Indeed, “In pluralistic societies where consensus is elusive, protecting religious liberty and rights of conscience is one of the most effective and principled ways to promote social peace and civic fraternity.”

Therefore, “[w]here governments choose to act, whether through regulation or through condition-based funding, they should promote respect for religious and moral conscience, not discourage it. Where a government itself imposes a burden on religious and moral conscience, the case for protecting conscience is even more compelling.”

The Christian adoption agency cases provide a prime example of government itself imposing a burden on religious and moral conscience. Therefore, the case for protecting the freedom of religious charities to serve society without violating commitments to faith and morality is compelling. The failure of public officials in certain jurisdictions to provide these protections is both regrettable and blameworthy.