Islington Council’s treatment of Ladele was not because of her religious beliefs but because of the manifestation of those beliefs. To establish whether there had been direct discrimination, it was correct to distinguish between an act and the belief that may have given rise to it.
While the council’s policy did indirectly discriminate against Ladele based on her religious beliefs, its treatment of her was justified as it had a legitimate aim of providing services in a non-discriminatory manner.
There may be dangers for employers in tolerating or compromising with employees who are attempting to adapt their role for discriminatory reasons.
What you should do
Be able to demonstrate your commitment to your internal equal opportunities policies.
Recognise that disciplinary action might be appropriate if you have an employee refusing to carry out their duties for reasons relating to religious beliefs.
In an important decision about the conflict of competing rights, the Court of Appeal has ruled that Lillian Ladele, a registrar working for Islington Borough Council, who refused to officiate at civil partnerships because of her religious beliefs, was not subjected to religious discrimination under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 when the council threatened to dismiss her for refusing to carry out her duties.
When the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force, allowing same-sex partnerships to be registered, Ladele told the council she would not take part in these registrations because her Christian beliefs meant that she saw marriage as a union between one man and one woman for life. She said she could not reconcile her faith with taking an active part in enabling same-sex unions to be formed.
Breach of diversity policy
Two of Ladele’s colleagues registered a concern that her behaviour was homophobic. The council eventually took disciplinary action against her, threatening to dismiss her if she maintained her position, on the basis that a refusal to officiate at the registrations was a breach of its equality and diversity policy, Dignity for All. This policy contained the council’s legal obligation to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, so the council was able to require employees to comply with it even if it conflicted with their own beliefs.
Ladele claimed that the council had directly and indirectly discriminated against her on the basis of her religious beliefs. Her claim was originally upheld by a tribunal, but overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).
The Court of Appeal agreed with the EAT: the council had acted as it had because Ladele was refusing to carry out her duties. In fact, Ladele’s complaint was not that she was treated differently on grounds of her religious belief, but that she was not treated differently when she ought to have been. There was no discrimination.
No unqualified right to show faith
The court considered that the European Court of Human Rights had made it clear that employees do not have “an unqualified right to manifest their religion” and that Article 9 (the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights did not require that employees should be allowed to manifest their religion when and where they choose.
This decision provides employers with further clarification of where they stand when presented with a potential conflict between the rights of employees whose religious beliefs may lead them to discriminate on other protected grounds.