The EAT, in the case of London Borough of Islington v Ladele, has held that an employer did not discriminate against a Christian Registrar when it disciplined her for refusing to perform civil partnership ceremonies.
The facts are illustrative of the types of tensions that employers face when trying to balance conflicting rights under the discrimination legislation. Ms Ladele had been a Registrar since 2002. In 2005, the Council designated all existing Registrars as Civil Partnership Arrangement Registrars. Ms Ladele objected on religious grounds to officiating at civil partnerships. The Council offered, as a temporary measure, that she would not have to officiate at ceremonies, but expected her to perform all other duties associated with civil partnerships. She would not accept this offer. She avoided carrying out her civil partnership duties by swapping her cover in the civil partnership rota with other colleagues. However, this caused tension and resentment within the department, especially amongst the gay and lesbian staff, who made a written complaint to her line-manager. The Council took disciplinary action against Ms Ladele and found her guilty of gross misconduct on the grounds that, in refusing to participate in civil partnerships, she was breaching the Council's Dignity For All Policy and discriminating against the gay community. The Tribunal upheld her claims for direct and indirect discrimination and harassment on the grounds of religious belief.
The EAT overturned the Tribunal's decision. Although the Council could have avoided the claims by not designating Ms Ladele as a Civil Partnership Registrar, it was not required to do so. It has a legal duty to provide its services in a non-discriminatory manner and was entitled to enforce the non-discriminatory provision of services by staff. The EAT held that the Council's action had not been taken on the grounds of Ms Ladele's religion and belief, but because she was refusing to carry out her proper duties. It was necessary to distinguish between Ms Ladele's conduct and her beliefs. In relation to indirect discrimination, it was accepted that the requirement to carry out the civil partnership ceremonies amounted to indirect discrimination. However, the Council has a legitimate aim of providing services to civil partnerships and promoting equal opportunities. Requiring all Registrars to perform services and act in a non-discriminatory manner was a proportionate means of achieving this aim. The Council is entitled not to allow employees to pick and choose their duties.
Impact on employers
This case highlights the potential for conflict between laws protecting employee's religion and belief and sexual orientation. The decision is useful in providing some guidance as to how tribunals will approach situations where there is conflict between religious beliefs of employees and sexual orientation. Where a person's religious beliefs mean that they act in a discriminatory manner towards others, it is unlikely that they will be able to make use of the protection of the Religion or Belief Regulations. A Tribunal has recently reached a similar conclusion in a case brought by a Relate counsellor who was dismissed because he refused to offer sex therapy sessions to gay couples.
In both of these cases the employers had a legitimate aim of promoting equal opportunities in the provision of their services. Although the decisions are unlikely to have been different if the employer is not actively involved in promoting equal opportunities, employers faced with similar conflict should consider whether there are acceptable ways of accommodating the religious beliefs of individual employees before disciplining or dismissing them.