The Court of Appeal has held that a Christian registrar who, for religious reasons, did not want to conduct same sex civil partnership ceremonies was not entitled to ask her employer to be excused from performing such ceremonies. Furthermore her employer's requirement that she did conduct civil partnership ceremonies was neither direct or indirect religious discrimination.
This ruling by the Court of Appeal confirms that in certain circumstances an employer can compel their staff to perform duties which the employee objects to for religious reasons.
However as with the McFarlane case (see Howes Percival newsflash 4 December 2009), this concerns an employer who not only had an equal opportunities 'ethos', but as a public authority had a duty to provide its services to the public in a non-discriminatory way. It is not clear therefore how the Courts would apply this principle to cases involving private sector employers, especially if they do not provide a service to the general public.
Accordingly it is still advisable to seek legal advice on this complex issue before taking any disciplinary action against an employee and to explore a practical solution.
In the case of Ladele v London Borough of Islington the Court of Appeal upheld the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision that Ms Ladele was neither directly or indirectly discriminated against on religious grounds for being required to conduct civil partnerships.
Ms Ladele was a registrar for the London Borough of Islington ("Islington"). When the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force on the 5th December 2005, Islington designated all their registrars as civil partnership registrars.
Ms Ladele believed in the 'orthodox Christian view' that marriage should be between a man and a woman and believed that same sex civil partnerships were 'contrary to god's instructions'. Therefore, Ms Ladele made informal arrangements with colleagues so she avoided conducting civil partnership ceremonies. However, this led two gay registrars at Islington to complain that her refusal to conduct a civil partnership ceremonies was an 'act of homophobia'.
Islington offered Ms Ladele a temporary compromise whereby she would only have to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies which involved no ceremony, but Ms Ladele did not agree to this.
Therefore Islington commenced disciplinary proceedings against Ms Ladele for her refusal to conduct civil partnership ceremonies. Following this Ms Ladele brought claims of direct and indirect discrimination to an Employment Tribunal.
The Employment Tribunal upheld her claims and Islington appealed to the EAT. The EAT overturned the Employment Tribunal's decision on all grounds and Ms Ladele appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal upheld the EAT's decision. It agreed with the EAT that Islington's requirement Ms Ladele conduct civil partnership ceremonies was not direct discrimination because "it cannot constitute direct discrimination to treat all employees in precisely the same way". Ms Ladele had not been discriminated against because she was a Christian but because of a "manifestation" of her Christian belief, namely her refusal to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.
The Court of Appeal did confirm that Islington's decision to require all registrars to perform civil partnership ceremonies could constitute indirect discrimination as it put Ms Ladele, because of her Christian beliefs, "at a disadvantage when compared with other persons". Therefore Islington had to show that their requirement was a 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim' (i.e. was justified).
The Court of Appeal agreed with the EAT that Islington's 'legitimate aim' was not simply the provision of 'effective civil partnership arrangements' but the provision of its services in a non-discriminatory way. Furthermore it was proportionate for Islington to require all its registrars to perform civil partnership ceremonies because to do otherwise "would undermine the Council's clear commitment to....their non-discriminatory objectives which [they] thought it important to espouse to both their staff and to the wider community".