A legal loophole intended to protect gay rights charities has enabled a Catholic adoption agency in the UK to continue to refuse to place children with homosexual couples.
Catholic Care's unexpected legal victory should allow similar adoption agencies forced to close or dissociate from the church to reopen as Catholic organisations.
Campaigners for religious freedom hailed the ruling, and said it would encourage oppostion to the equality agenda and its assault on freedom of conscience.
Catholic Care, which serves the dioceses of Leeds, Middlesbrough, and Hallam in South Yorkshire, launched the legal action saying it would have to give up its work finding homes for children if it had to comply with the 2007 Equality Act
The law banned adoption agencies from refusing to place children homosexual prospective parents.
The adoption agency argued that a clause of the legislation – Regulation 18 – should permit charities to continue to refuse gay couples if the stated aim of the charity was to provide services to people of a particular sexual orientation.
The clause had been inserted to ensure that homosexual charities could not be sued for discrimination by heterosexual couples.
The UK's Charities Commission had rejected Catholic Care's application to write an explicit reference to serving heterosexuals into its constitution, but yesterday Mr Justice Briggs ordered the commission to review its decision.
He accepted that the adoption agency could still provided a public benefit even if it did not consider homosexual parents.
The Rt Rev Arthur Roche, Bishop of Leeds, said that the judgement would "help in our determination to continue to provide this invaluable service to benefit children, families and communities".
He added: "We look forward to producing evidence to the Charity Commission to support the position that we have consistently taken through this process: that without being able to use this exemption, children without families would be seriously disadvantaged."
Catholic Care was the last of Britain's eleven Catholic adoption agencies to resist the changes.
Other charities, such as the Catholic Children's Society, Westminster, and the Catholic Children's Rescue Society in Salford decided to close their adoption services, while others agreed to accept the regulations and cut ties with the church.
Christian campaigners said that the judgement opened the door for other adoption agencies to reopen under a Catholic banner.
Andrea Williams from the Christian Legal Centre said: "This is a great result and a step in the right direction. It's upsetting that the other adoption agencies have been forced to close, but this ruling will help them reopen if they so wish.
"The ruling supports Christian groups which want to operate freely and according to traditional values with regard to the nature of family."
Philippa Gitlin, director of the Caritas Social Action Network, an umbrella group of Catholic charities, said that the trustees of charities that had adapted to comply with the legislation would "carefully consider" the ruling.
She said: "It is entirely a matter for specific consideration by the trustees of each charity what action, if any, they decide is feasible and appropriate in the light of today’s judgement. "
Secular campaigners condemned the judge's decision as "alarming" and "a major setback" for gay rights.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: "It is unfortunate that the court has enabled Catholic Care to exploit what was obviously an error in the drafting of the equality legislation. The loophole this created was never intended to be used this way."