In Ladele v London Borough of Islington, the Court of Appeal has upheld the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal that a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex couples, on the grounds that to do so would violate her Christian beliefs, was neither directly nor indirectly discriminated against or harassed under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.
The Court of Appeal held that the Council had taken disciplinary action against Ms Ladele not because of her religious beliefs, but because of her refusal to abide by its policy that all registrars carry out civil partnership ceremonies. Although the requirement for all registrars to carry partnership duties put persons of Ms Ladele's religious beliefs at a disadvantage, it could be justified. The Council had the legitimate aims of:
- providing effective services relating to civil partnerships in a non-discriminatory way; and
- being "an employer and a public authority wholly committed to the promotion of equal opportunities and to require all its employees to act in a way which does not discriminate against others"
Requiring all staff to uphold the Council's non-discriminatory objectives was a proportionate means of achieving those aims. The Council's equality and diversity policy was of overarching significance and it had fundamental human rights, equality and diversity implications. Under the Sexual Orientation Regulations, the Council had a legal obligation to provide its services to the public without discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. It was therefore legally obliged, having properly designated Miss Ladele as a civil partnership registrar, to insist on her performing her full duties.
Although the court had sympathy with Miss Ladele's dilemma, it considered that implementing the policy did not impinge on Ms Ladele's religious beliefs, as she remained free to hold those beliefs and to worship as she wished.
Impact on employers
- This decision confirms that employers can, in certain circumstances, require employees to comply with their internal policies and carry out duties, even if those policies and duties conflict with an employee's religious beliefs.
- This will be true where the employee's religious beliefs contradict the employer’s fundamental ethos, its commitment to serve the public, or its legal obligations.
- However, employers should not respond to this decision by rigidly rejecting all employee requests for flexibility where such conflicts arise. The Council's actions in this case (in disciplining Miss Ladele) were justified in part because it was a public sector body, providing a service to the general public. The principles arising from this decision might be applied differently where, for example the employer is a private sector organisation and was not able to demonstrate such a wholesale commitment to equal opportunities.
- In practice, every employee request for flexibility must be carefully considered and assessed and an appropriate balance struck. It may be possible to accommodate some requests while still upholding the employer's ethos or policies. Employers should strive to find an acceptable compromise where possible.