Promoting religious beliefs in the workplace

March 19, 2009

We recently reported on the issues that an employer should consider when faced with employees’ conflicting beliefs in the workplace. The issue of religion and belief has again been in the public eye and continues to raise interesting debate. Readers may be aware of recent events concerning the suspension of a community nurse after a complaint made by an elderly patient, who had been asked by the nurse if she would like her to say a prayer for her recovery.

The nurse in question was subsequently reinstated, but how does an employer deal with a situation where an employee seeks to promote his or her religious beliefs within the workplace? This article looks at a recent employment tribunal case covering these issues.

The case involved a social worker (Mr C), a committed Christian employed by a local authority and seconded to a National Health Service Trust as part of its Community Mental Health Team. After an investigation, Mr C was subjected to disciplinary proceedings for gross misconduct. Among other issues, his managers were concerned that he failed to recognise the need for professional boundaries. This particular issue had been raised after an incident when Mr C had given one of his service users a Bible, and it was made clear to him that such behaviour was inappropriate, particularly given the nature of his work dealing with vulnerable individuals. It was also alleged that, despite being told that it was inappropriate, he had later sought to promote Christianity to another service user, resulting in a complaint.

Mr C was dismissed on grounds that included failure to follow a reasonable management instruction not to promote his religious beliefs. He then brought an employment tribunal claim under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, alleging that, by dismissing him, his employer had directly discriminated against him on the grounds of his religion or belief. The tribunal rejected his claim, finding that Mr C had not been dismissed on the grounds of his religion or belief, but on the grounds that he had been improperly foisting it upon service users. Mr C appealed, but the Employment Appeal Tribunal agreed with the tribunal at first instance, holding that the true reason for the dismissal was the inappropriate promotion of his religion or belief to service users, not the religion or belief itself.

Given the sensitive nature of Mr C’s work and the individuals he dealt with, it is easy to understand the local authority’s stance. The decision raises interesting questions as to how such a situation may be handled where a member of staff at an institution seeks to promote his or her beliefs to other staff members or students. In such circumstances, an institution would have to consider and carefully balance the needs of the students and staff so that a level of tolerance and respect for those who hold different beliefs is maintained. While institutions should certainly not discriminate against a member of staff because they hold certain religious views or beliefs and must of course observe academic freedom and freedom of speech, a member of staff must also act reasonably, having particular regard to the impact of their actions on other members of staff.

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