Universities with Church of England foundations have been told to emphasise their Christian ethos in employment contracts to make it easier to dismiss staff who do not adhere to the institutions' values.
References to a Christian ethos in contracts would allow institutions to argue that employees who "openly flout" this are in breach of contract, suggests guidance from the Council of Church Colleges and Universities (CCCU).
Such references would also help the universities to insist that senior staff hold Christian beliefs, the guidance suggests.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, called the advice "deeply disturbing. This report obliquely suggests ways of ensuring that some positions are not held by those whose lifestyle is at odds with some Christian doctrine, presumably in terms of sexual orientation, attitudes to abortion and maybe even to marriage".
The CCCU's Guide to Governance in Church Higher Education Institutions , whose target audience includes the universities of Gloucestershire, Chester, Winchester, Chichester, Liverpool Hope, Roehampton, York St John and Canterbury Christ Church, is based on advice from lawyers Mills & Reeve.
The guide advises institutions that "if an employee acts in a way which is detrimental to the employer, for example by openly flouting the ethos ... it may be possible to conclude that there has been a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence".
Church institutions should therefore make their Christian ethos clear to employees before appointment and in contracts, the guide says.
Universities whose faith position is followed unambiguously are more likely to be able to establish a "genuine occupational requirement (GOR)", the guide says. Requiring employees to hold a particular religious belief would usually breach employment equality regulations, but the GOR allows employers to discriminate on the grounds of religion if there is a genuine need for the person in a job to adhere to a certain belief.
The guide cites Canterbury Christ Church University and Chester University, which have references to their Christian mission in their articles of governance. It says such "faith distinctive" elements should be included in key documents such as prospectuses "as this serves to reinforce the GOR claim".
The CCCU said it was likely that a GOR defence could be established for senior staff, chaplains and teachers of theology, but it was not clear how far it could be applied to other staff. A GOR in respect of sexual orientation may also be applied in respect of chancellors and principals, it added, "but care should be taken".