The relationship between the Catholic Church and The Family Care Society (NI) is ending following changes in adoption legislation allowing unmarried couples and same sex couples in Northern Ireland to adopt.
A statement from the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland today said it was “with regret” it was breaking links with the adoption services organisation that has offices in Belfast and Londonderry.
This follows the outcome of a judicial review of adoption law in Northern Ireland initiated by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2011.
Ruling on the case in the High Court determined that couples in Northern Ireland who are not married, those in civil partnerships, and same-sex couples could, for the first time, apply to adopt.
This judgement was subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal last year. A legal challenge by former DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots to the UK Supreme Court seeking leave to appeal the Court of Appeal judgement was turned down.
Previously, single people - gay or straight - were able to apply to apply adopt but not if they were part of a couple. Until October 2013 they were only eligible for consideration as an individual.
A statement from the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland today said: “As a result the Family Care Society is now legally obliged to receive and process applications in accordance with the new and wider interpretation of adoption law established by the High Court decision.
“Regrettably, this development leaves us in the same position as that faced by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales some years ago when, given the legal obligation to apply policies that are contrary to Catholic teaching and ethos, they were left with no option but to disengage from the adoption agencies they had founded and with which they had a long and cherished link.
“Since the provision of adoption services in Northern Ireland now also involves acting against the Church’s teaching and ethos, we too have no option but to end the long established relationship between the Church and The Family Care Society (NI).
“We believe equality would be best served by support for a diversity of adoption providers, with reasonable accommodation in law for those adoptive parents who value the support of an agency with a particular religious ethos.
“We lament the fact that the Family Care Society (NI) is no longer free to provide adoption services consistent with a Catholic ethos, valued by so many adoptive parents over the years.
“The law now makes it impossible for this agency to continue with the support it has enjoyed up to now from the Church.”
The statement also said that the Catholic Church was concerned that “many Christians and others will see this development as a further erosion of their fundamental right to exercise freedom of conscience and religion in the public square” and added that it “will continue to support the Family Care Society over the coming months as its board decides how to respond to the new legal situation, on the understanding that Church funds will be used only for purposes consistent with the Church’s doctrine and ethos.”
A spokesperson for the The Family Care Society (NI) was unavailable comment.
Meanwhile, DUP Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan said the matter demonstrated the need for a conscious clause in Northern Ireland.
“This decision by the Catholic Church is another reminder that our laws do not make provision for those with perfectly legitimate religious beliefs. The Catholic Church wished to continue its relationship with The Family Care Society but a High Court judgement on adoption provision in Northern Ireland essentially forced this relationship to come to an end," Mr Givan said.
"The ramifications of this Judgement have been far reaching. I trust the Judiciary will carefully reflect on their judgement and the consequences it has had on adoption agencies.
"The challenge is now with politicians to respond to this development. I am firmly of the belief that reasonable accommodation should be made that would allow the Catholic Church to continue providing a service that has been of great value to our society over many years.
"I will be launching my Private Members Bill next Monday. It will outline a legislative provision which would allow the Catholic Church to continue its relationship with The Family Care Society.
"Equality of opportunity for Catholics to access adoption services from their own church is being denied as a result of our laws. Just as with Ashers Bakery, the Catholic Church should not have to act in violation of its deeply held religious beliefs. A truly tolerant society should be capable of making space to accommodate difference in our community.
"The Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale has said the United Kingdom is 'less respectful' towards people with religious views than other countries, despite its long Christian traditions. More recently she also said that a ‘conscience clause’ should be considered to protect those, such as Christians who have deeply and genuinely held beliefs.
"As I bring forward my Private Members Bill I trust Northern Ireland will be able to correct this dangerous situation where people of faith are being hindered in their work by repressive legal constraints.”
The Family Care Society (NI) was formed in 1998 from The Catholic Family Care Society (NI) established in 1989 by the Northern Catholic Bishops to provide Adoption and Child Care Services formerly carried out by the Sisters of Nazareth Adoption Society, Derry and the Down and Connor Family Welfare Society, Belfast, both of which operated in Northern Ireland since 1921.
The Society has offices in the Derry Diocesan Pastoral Centre, Bishop Street, Derry and the Down and Connor Good Shepherd Centre, Ormeau Road, Belfast.
The Society regularly promotes its services through Catholic parishes across Northern Ireland.