In the recent case of Gould v. St John’s Downshire Hill UKEAT/0002/20/BA, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that dismissing a minister because his marriage had broken down could amount to marriage discrimination.

In 2016, Mr Gould was dismissed from his role as a vicar at St John’s Downshire Hill church on the grounds that his employer had lost trust and confidence in him. However, he alleged that the real reason was because of the breakdown of his marriage and he brought a claim for unfair dismissal and direct marriage discrimination.

The EAT held that it would have been possible for this claim to succeed if the claimant’s behaviour was not the substantial reason for his dismissal, or if the Trustees thought a vicar’s marital breakdown meant he could be sacked. However, on the facts of the case, neither of the above scenarios applied and the appeal was dismissed.

Whilst this case is fairly fact-specific, it serves as a useful reminder that marriage and civil partnership discrimination should not be overlooked by employers. This protected characteristic will apply to individuals who are married or in a civil partnership. It covers any formal union which is legally recognised in the UK as a marriage, as well as civil partnerships between same sex partners and, since 2 December 2019, opposite sex partners in England and Wales.

The protected characteristic of marriage and civil partnership can also overlap with other protected characteristics, such as sexual orientation, gender reassignment, sex, religion or belief, and race. Therefore, employers should always consider that, whilst discrimination may be linked to a marriage or civil partnership, the circumstances may have an equal or greater link with another protected characteristic. Having an effective equality and diversity policy in place alongside well-trained staff will help avoid potential discrimination claims, while creating an inclusive workplace for all staff.

However, as with all potential discrimination claims, there can be a fine line between a person’s protected characteristic and their behaviour. In this case, the EAT held that the reason for the claimant’s dismissal was a loss of trust and confidence in him as a result of his general behaviour. Whilst his marital difficulties were part of the background of the case, this was not a case of marriage discrimination. Therefore, employers should remain alive to this distinction when dealing with potential issues, and be ready to evidence their reason for dismissal (or otherwise) thoroughly.