Christian registrar Lillian Ladele loses religious discrimination appeal

Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who claimed she faced religious discrimination after she refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, has lost her appeal.

Ladele, a registrar of births, deaths and marriages for the London Borough of Islington, refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies when they were introduced in 2005, as she believed such unions were in breach of her Christian faith.

She claimed Islington council religiously discriminated against, and harassed, her because of her decision, but the Court of Appeal has today ruled that this was not the case.

When Ladele asked to be excused from conducting civil ceremonies in 2005, two gay members of the council’s staff said they felt victimised by her stance, and the council took disciplinary action against her.

Ladele claimed religious discrimination and harassment, and her claims were initially upheld by an Employment Tribunal in 2007.

But in December 2008, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) overturned the decision and ruled that the council was entitled to require all registrars to perform the full range of services.

The EAT said the claimant’s stance was “inconsistent with the non-discriminatory objectives which the council thought it important to espouse, both to their staff and the wider community.”

It said: “It would necessarily undermine the council’s clear commitment to that objective if it were to connive in allowing the claimant to manifest her belief by refusing to do civil partnership duties.”

Ladele appealed against this decision but the appeal has now been rejected by the Court of Appeal.

Dismissing her case, Lord Neuberger said: “It appears to me that, however much sympathy one may have with someone such as Ms Ladele, who is faced with choosing between giving up a post she plainly appreciates or officiating at events which she considers to be contrary to her religious beliefs, the legislature has decided that the requirements of a modern liberal democracy, such as the United Kingdom, include outlawing discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on grounds of sexual orientation, subject only to very limited exceptions.”

Rachel Dineley, head of diversity and discrimination at law firm Beachcroft, said: “The message from today’s ruling is clear. Employees are free to hold religious beliefs but employers are entitled to require them to comply with their explicit equality and diversity policy, where this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The aim here was very clear, namely to provide a public service on a non-discriminatory basis.”

But Dineley added that it is important that employers don’t respond to the ruling by rigidly rejecting all employee requests for flexibility. 

“This does not mean employers should always be rigid in their strict adherence to a policy,” she said. “Every request for some form of flexibility in practice must be carefully considered. It may be possible to accommodate some requests while upholding the policy. 

“Striking the balance may be difficult in practice, and the impact of granting or refusing a request – or putting some other compromise in place – needs to be fully assessed. As a public sector organisation, with a remit to deliver a public service, there was a strong human rights argument in this case, as Islington has a duty to conduct civil partnership marriages. However, the result of this case might have been different if the employer had been a private sector organisation.”

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