Equality laws have created a “pecking order of competing equalities” where religion often loses out, an employment lawyer has said.
Although equality laws are supposed to protect religious believers from discrimination, case law has tended to place religion at a disadvantage compared to other protected characteristics, says Adam Fuge in an article for Personnel Today magazine.
He suggests that when religion and another strand of anti-discrimination law (such as sexual orientation) come into conflict, courts and tribunals consistently rule against religious conscience.
Mr Fuge, a principal at Matthew Arnold and Baldwin LLP, cites the case of Lillian Ladele as an example.
A registrar working for Islington Council, Miss Ladele asked to be excused from registering civil partnerships because she held orthodox Christian beliefs about marriage.
Instead she was disciplined and threatened with the sack, even though the Council admitted that it was able to offer “first class” civil partnership registration services without Miss Ladele’s involvement.
An employment tribunal found that Islington Council subjected Miss Ladele to direct discrimination, indirect discrimination and harassment on grounds of her religious belief, but this ruling was subsequently overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).
Mr Fuge describes Miss Ladele’s case as “a significant decision in the battle for primacy of competing ‘equalities’.”
In reaching its decision, Mr Fuge says the EAT “rejected the notion that an employer should seek to balance the wishes of different groups or should be required to say that an employee can choose which duties they should perform in accordance with their religious views.”
The EAT’s conclusion that “Ladele’s personal stance involved discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation” was controversial, writes Mr Fuge.
This is because the EAT “chose to focus not on whether Ladele’s needs could be accommodated without affecting the service provided by the council, but on whether her objection, though based on religious faith, was itself discriminatory in nature.”
“In effect, the EAT gave primacy to the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation, over an employee’s deeply held religious beliefs – even though it was not found that Miss Ladele has conducted herself improperly towards colleagues or members of the public.”
According to Mr Fuge’s analysis, the Ladele judgement has given employers the message that they should “ignore the personal religious convictions of an individual if they offend another strand of discrimination such as sexual orientation – even if it might be feasible to accommodate them without causing individual offence.”
Besides Lillian Ladele, Mr Fuge cites two other examples of religious belief falling foul of the equalities “pecking order” in the courts.
One case involved a magistrate who resigned after his request not to be involved in placing children with same-sex couples was refused.
In the other case a Christian relationship councillor was dismissed for refusing to provide psycho-sexual therapy for same-sex couples.
In these cases neither man was found to have been discriminated against on grounds of his religion or belief.
Mr Fuge also says that it is “perhaps ironic” that the Government has introduced a new Equality Bill to “harmonise” discrimination law, even though the potential for clashes between competing equalities has not been rectified.
Miss Ladele will seek permission to appeal her case at the Court of Appeal in November.