Christian fostering agency takes Ofsted to the High Court over unpublished report claiming it discriminates by only working with evangelical married heterosexual carers
A court battle is set to take place between Ofsted and a Christian fostering agency over the company's policy of only working with straight married couples.
Cornerstone (North East) Adoption and Fostering Service is taking the watchdog to court claiming it is being forced to abandon its religious ethos.
It comes after Ofsted said in a yet unpublished report that the agency, which operates in the North East of England, discriminates by only working with evangelical Christian carers in man-woman marriages.
Chairwoman of Cornerstone's trustees, the Reverend Sheila Bamber, said the watchdog's judgment was 'seriously flawed and discriminatory'.
Lawyers for Cornerstone, a small independent fostering and post-adoption support agency, say Ofsted's requirements are 'disproportionate interference' in Cornerstone's rights under the Human Rights Act 1998.
They also say the policy is 'incompatible' with provisions in the Equality Act 2010, which establish that religious charities may restrict 'the provision of benefits' to fellow believers.
Lawyers will also debate if it breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, including freedom of thought, expression and religion.
It comes after the agency was inspected by Ofsted last year.
The agency's fostering work was subsequently downgraded from 'good' to 'requires improvement'.
Chairwoman of Cornerstone's trustees, the Reverend Sheila Bamber, said: 'Ofsted is not a judicial body and is not equipped to make definitive legal statements about Cornerstone's compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998.
'In so doing, Ofsted has acted beyond its remit and has misapplied the law.
'We maintain that this judgment displays a seriously flawed and discriminatory approach to our service.'
Cornerstone chief executive Pam Birtle said that, although it is a small agency, it plays a vital role, especially with hard-to-place children.
She said the agency has facilitated the transition to adoption for about 80 per cent of the children it has placed and there have been no adoption breakdowns during the organisation's 20-year history.
'Cornerstone is a small, much-loved Christian agency that achieves excellent results for children and families,' said Simon Calvert, who is deputy director of The Christian Institute, which is supporting the legal action.
'Its existence relies on exceptions to equality law passed by Parliament in 2010 precisely to protect the ethos of faith-based agencies like Cornerstone.
'Ofsted is seeking to deny Cornerstone's right to rely on these exceptions, which are used every day by many thousands of religious bodies and places of worship.'
Mr Calvert said: 'There are 306 independent fostering agencies in England. Why is Ofsted insisting that non-evangelicals must also be able to use England's only evangelical fostering agency?
'The staff and trustees are effectively being ordered to go against their faith by a government body.'
A judicial review of Ofsted's actions will be heard in the High Court in Leeds, starting on Wednesday.