No discrimination against Christian dismissed for how she shared belief

Woman holding bible (Stock photo)
Stock photo

In DLA Piper’s case of the week, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) examined the dividing line between the innocent expression of an employee’s religion at work and the inappropriate manifestation of religious beliefs in the workplace that justifies a misconduct charge.

Grace v Places for Children

Introduction

This case is a good example of the complexities that employers face when dealing with situations that may result in claims under the Equality Act 2010 for discrimination based on religion or belief. Direct discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief occurs when an individual is treated less favourably because of his or her religion or belief.

Facts

The appellant, Ms Grace, was employed as a nursery manager by the respondent, Places for Children. She was dismissed from her employment after nine months. The reason given for her dismissal was that she acted inappropriately by holding training sessions during which she was considered to have harassed other members of staff with her devoutly Christian views. Ms Grace raised a claim for discrimination, which she valued at £500,000. Her claim was based on allegations that she was subjected to a detriment for manifesting her religious belief, in relation to:

  • her dismissal;
  • her being told that it was not company policy to hold Bible sessions;
  • her being told that it was unsuitable to have discussions about God in the workplace; and
  • allegations that she was informed that her conversations about God to other members of staff were unsuitable.

Employment tribunal decision

In finding against Ms Grace, the employment tribunal carefully stated that “she was not treated as she was because of her religion, but rather because of the way in which she manifested or shared it”.

The employment tribunal had to be cautious about the way in which this was phrased to avoid drawing a distinction between “holding” a religious belief and “manifesting” a religious belief. To hold a religion or belief is simply to have that religion or belief, while to manifest a religion or belief is, in short, to practise it, for example by dressing in a particular way or following a particular diet.

On appeal, the EAT expressly noted that art.9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Employment statutory code of practice does not allow a dividing line between discriminating on the basis of holding a religion or belief and discriminating on the basis of manifesting a religion or belief.

EAT decision

In upholding the original employment tribunal decision, the EAT noted that it would not have agreed with the employment tribunal if its reasoning could be read as drawing a clear dividing line between holding and manifesting a religious belief, the former prohibiting unfair treatment, the latter permitting it. However, the EAT referred to the employment tribunal’s precise wording, which stated that Ms Grace was not treated as she was because she manifested her religious belief, but because of the way in which she manifested those religious beliefs.

Points of note

This case highlights the fact that employers can face a minefield when dealing with employees who manifest or practise their religion or beliefs in a way in which the employer or other employees consider inappropriate. Employers must remember that they should not place an individual at a detriment for manifesting their religious beliefs (for example by praying at work), but may be able to proceed with a fair disciplinary procedure if that individual manifests that belief in a way that is inappropriate.

XpertHR case reports on manifestation of religious beliefs

Sexual orientation discrimination: Christian B&B owners’ refusal of double-bedded room for civil partners not justified The Supreme Court held that the owners of a B&B, whose religious beliefs include that sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage are sinful, could not justify their refusal to give civil partners a room with a double bed, in this important discrimination case on the conflict between sexual orientation laws and the right to manifest religious beliefs.

Religion or belief discrimination: Christian care worker who refused to work on Sundays loses appeal The Court of Appeal found that the employment tribunal was correct to reject the indirect religion or belief discrimination claim brought by a Christian care worker who resigned after a dispute with her employer over her refusal to work on Sundays.

Religion or belief discrimination: Christian telesales agent alleges dismissal for refusal to lie to customers This employment tribunal held that a Christian telesales agent’s belief that potential customers should not be deceived to obtain sales could be protected under the Equality Act 2010. However, the claimant lost his case because he did not present sufficient evidence that his former employer had required him to lie to potential customers.

Alan Chalmers

About Alan Chalmers

Alan Chalmers is partner at DLA Piper.
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