The Employment Appeal Tribunal has reversed a Tribunal decision that disciplinary action against a Christian registrar who refused to participate in same-sex civil partnerships was discrimination against her on the grounds of her religion or belief. It also held that providing civil partnership ceremonies in a non-discriminatory way was a legitimate aim for the employer, and requiring all registrars to do this was justified (Ladele v London Borough of Islington).
Although this case provides some clarity for employers, this is likely to remain a difficult area to tackle due to the often competing “protected” interests of employees, in this case protection against being discriminated against on grounds of religious belief competing with protection against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Ms Ladele’s solicitor has indicated that she will take her case to the Court of Appeal, so these issues of competing protections are likely to be subject to further higher court decisions.
For now though, this decision would appear to highlight that:
- where an employee refuses to carry out duties which are required of all employees because these conflict with their religious belief, if accommodating such a belief leads an employee to participate in discriminatory behaviour against other protected groups, it is unlikely that he or she will be able to rely on the protection of the Religion and Belief Regulations;
- an employer may be justified in not accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs by, for example, not removing duties that would cause a conflict with such beliefs. However, this will not always be the case and employers will need to consider the issues which arise around this carefully.
Ms Lillian Ladele, a practising Christian, has been a registrar of births, deaths and marriages at Islington Borough Council since 2002. Due to her orthodox Christian views that same-sex unions were “contrary to God’s law and a sin”, Ms Ladele refused to take any part in any civil partnership ceremonies following their introduction in December 2005. The Council had designated all its registrars as civil partnership registrars including Ms Ladele. Ms Ladele was not consulted on this. Her gay colleagues complained that her refusal to conduct civil partnership ceremonies amounted to discrimination towards the gay community and colleagues on the basis of sexual orientation, and also breached the Council’s ‘Dignity for All’ policy.
A disciplinary process was commenced against Ms Ladele on the basis that her conduct in refusing to conduct these ceremonies was a breach of the Council’s policy. Ms Ladele subsequently brought claims of direct and indirect discrimination and harassment to the Tribunal. The Tribunal found in favour of Ms Ladele on all three claims. The Tribunal commented that the Council had placed greater value on the rights of the gay community than on Ms Ladele’s religious beliefs.
However, the EAT found that Ms Ladele had not been directly discriminated against because the Council’s reason for taking disciplinary action against her was on the grounds of her conduct and not her religious beliefs. The harassment claim failed for a similar reason. The Tribunal had been in error in treating the reason for the Council's treatment of Ms Ladele, namely her refusal to carry out duties (and such refusal constituting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation) as being the same as Ms Ladele's reason for refusing to carry out the duties (her beliefs). The treatment of Ms Ladele was due to her conduct not her beliefs and so her claims failed on the basis that someone who had similarly refused to carry out their duties, would also have been disciplined by the Council.
Furthermore, Ms Ladele had also not been indirectly discriminated against. Although the Council’s policy of requiring all registrars to carry out civil ceremonies did place her at a disadvantage due to her religious belief, providing civil partnership ceremonies in a non-discriminatory way was a legitimate aim of the Council. The policy of requiring all registrars to perform these ceremonies was a proportionate way of achieving this aim and therefore justified.
The EAT has reversed the decision although acknowledging that the Council had in some circumstances acted in an improper and unreasonable way. Mr Justice Elias (President of the EAT at the time) who gave the judgment commented that there may be ways of accommodating those strong religious objections in a lawful way in this “highly sensitive area”.