Dealing with conflicting beliefs in the workplace

January 29, 2009

Educational institutions try hard to promote equality and to promote tolerance and respect for different groups and different beliefs. But what happens when those beliefs are in conflict with each other?

This problem occurred in a recent case involving the employee of a council. The employee (L) was a committed Christian. She was employed by the council as a registrar. After the introduction of the Civil Partnerships Act 2004, L, along with her fellow registrars, was obliged to carry out the registration process provided for same-sex partnerships. L was unwilling to carry out civil partnership ceremonies, owing to her religious belief. The employer’s “Dignity for All” policy required employees “to treat all members of the community and other employees fairly and equally, regardless of their sex, race, colour, national or ethnic origin, sexuality, religion, age, disability or marital status”.

Two of L’s colleagues, who were gay, complained about her stance. In their view, it was a breach of the council’s requirement to treat everyone equally. L was eventually subjected to disciplinary action for refusing to carry out civil partnership work. She complained that she had been subject to discrimination and harassment on the grounds of her religious belief, citing both the disciplinary action against her and the way the council dealt with the colleagues’ complaints against her.

Last summer, the employment tribunal upheld L’s claim. It found that the disciplinary action taken against her was on account of her refusal to carry out civil partnership work; this was as a result of her religious belief; as such, it concluded that the treatment was on the grounds of L’s religion.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal has overturned this decision. L was not, in the EAT’s view, disciplined for holding her religious beliefs. The reason for the disciplinary action was her refusal to carry out civil partnership ceremonies. Furthermore, the EAT found that there had been no indirect discrimination. The council’s requirement for registrars to carry out civil partnership duties was a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. It was accepted that the council’s aim was to provide an effective civil partnership service on a non-discriminatory basis and that this was legitimate. What was at issue was whether it was a proportionate response to require the claimant to carry out these duties. The EAT held that, “a vague attempt to balance irreconcilable positions” was not an appropriate way to determine the proportionality test. The council’s appeal was upheld.

While the EAT’s reversal of the employment tribunal’s decision may be a relief to many employers, the case does highlight the difficulties that can be faced by institutions. Institutions are used to having to balance different issues such as the desire to protect freedom of speech, or the desire to respect the different religious and cultural practices of all staff and students with the practical need to use the entire week for timetabling purposes. Where legislation protects the rights of groups who hold different views and values, the matter can be yet more difficult.

Legislation gives little assistance as to how to manage conflicting beliefs under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations and the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations. Dealing with such a situation requires sensitivity, communication and clear policies that are adhered to and that send an awareness of the discrimination principles. As this case shows, these matters are not easy, even for the courts. Legal advice should, therefore, be sought wherever such difficulties arise at an early stage.

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