Why adoption is now mother of all debates about Christianity
People with strong religious views should not be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs
The rights of Christians to express their beliefs, in a society increasingly sensitive to perceived homophobia, have been challenged again by the case of a couple in Britain who were barred from trying to adopt their two foster children. Why was their attempt to adopt blocked by social services? Apparently, because they had expressed "concerning" opinions about the possibility of a same-sex couple being chosen as the adoptive parents instead.
It is the couple's strong belief that children are better off with a "mummy and daddy", rather than gay parents. "We are Christians," they wrote, in an appeal against the decision, "and we expressed the view that a child needs a mother and a father. We expressed our views in modest, temperate terms, based on our Christian convictions."
They say that they did not put forward homophobic views - "unless Christian views are, by definition, homophobic". They claim that the decision appears discriminatory and not related to the needs of the children. As far as they are concerned, the issue is simple: "The children love us, we love them. All the reports show that we are a loving, caring and stable family. What more could a child need?"
Coming shortly after the Ashers verdict, which ruled that the Christian McArthur family had no right to refuse to supply a cake with a political slogan calling for support for marriage equality on it, this adoption case indicates that traditional ideas about marriage and parenting are no longer simply unfashionable; holding such views - and daring to express them - can actually get people penalised by the authorities.
The facts, as far as we know them, are that the couple - who remain anonymous for legal reasons - had been fostering the pre-school children since early this year. By all accounts, they were doing a good job and were praised for the "lovely care and warmth" they provided for the children.
But last month they were informed by a social worker that a gay couple were being proposed as adoptive parents and that this would mean the two men visiting the family home to prepare the children for their new life with them.
It was then that the situation started to get messy. The couple claim that the social worker became upset, because they would not endorse views about gay adoption that went against their conscience. The father said it would be difficult to explain the situation to the foster children, given that one of them "is waiting for a new mummy".
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The big question that I had here was - why hadn't the foster parents already applied to adopt the children themselves, if that was so important to them? Why did they act only when a gay couple came into the equation?
Well, according to the couple, they had, indeed, mentioned their interest in adopting the youngsters many times to the social worker, but he had put them off, saying their home was too small. Two days after they heard about the prospective gay parents, the husband and wife filed a formal application to adopt the children.
Although we know that social services have refused that request, we only have the couple's detailed side of the story so far and very little further evidence. We would need to know a lot more in order to clarify whether the foster parents were motivated to adopt primarily by simple love for these young children, or whether their religious opposition to same-sex parents was the defining factor. Were they acting to enable the children, or to thwart the authorities?
As someone who supports gay adoption, I have no difficulty with two men, or two women, applying to be parents of youngsters in need of a loving, secure home.
After all, there are plenty of successful non-adoptive families with same-sex parents.
If they can demonstrably provide the care and stability that an adoptive child requires, then nothing - certainly not their sexuality - should stand in their way, as long as the best interests of the child are paramount.
The central question in this case is whether the future security and happiness of the children at the heart of it is threatened by the Christian beliefs of the foster parents and whether that should debar them from adopting outright. The council in question certainly seem to think so.
"Having heard that the prospective adopters were a same-sex couple," they wrote, "you shared some opinions in relation to this proposed placement which are concerning and which would not enable the service to progress an inquiry to be assessed as prospective adopters, as these views could be detrimental to the long-term needs of the children."
Cut through the turgidly bureaucratic language and there you have it in the last line: this "concerning" view that children should preferably have a mother and a father could ultimately be damaging to them and that is why we won't consider you as adoptive parents.
I can fully understand an adoption application being blocked if the parents are rabidly anti-gay - or, indeed, rabidly anti-anything. Extremism is never a good quality in a prospective parent.
But it's rather disturbing that simply expressing the personal belief that children do better with a mother and a father is sufficient to get a couple struck from the list.
It wasn't so very long ago that gay people were outlawed, criminalised and considered a danger to children. Thank God those hateful, discriminatory days are gone.
It is not in the interests of true equality, however, that basic Christian views about marriage and family - which were until very recently the societal norm and still are, in many instances - should now be outlawed and considered actively harmful to children.
The answer to old-fashioned religious intolerance, which saw gay people terribly persecuted, often by those with hardline Christian beliefs, will not be found in a new form of intolerance, in which Christians themselves become the reviled minority.
Admittedly, with religious fundamentalists still driving Government policy at Stormont, that's not going to happen in Northern Ireland anytime soon.
But even here the signs of change are in the air.
As I said in regard to the Ashers case, it is not the business of the authorities to tell us what to believe, how to act and what religious, or political, causes to endorse.
If freedom means anything, it is the freedom to speak and live your own truth, as you see it.