Discrimination not found as Christian counsellor sacked by Relate

Key points

  • McFarlane’s treatment was not because of his Christian beliefs but the manifestation of those beliefs. It was legitimate, for direct discrimination purposes, to distinguish between an act and the belief that gives rise to it.
  • Relate’s treatment of McFarlane was justified by the legitimate aim of providing services in a non-discriminatory way and requiring its employees to comply with that aim was proportionate and justified.

What you should do

  • Review your policies and consider whether any could be regarded as a provision, practice or criterion that could disadvantage particular groups and, as such, be indirectly discriminatory.

In a case heard before the Court of Appeal’s decision in Ladele was available, the EAT was asked to consider whether a Christian Relate counsellor had been discriminated against contrary to the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003.

The EAT ruled that Gary McFarlane, who was dismissed for refusing to commit to provide psycho-sexual counselling to same-sex couples, was not discriminated against on grounds of his Christian belief.

No right to manifest belief

McFarlane’s refusal was based on his Christian beliefs that same-sex sexual activity was sinful and that he should not do anything to endorse it. The EAT held that there was no direct discrimination, as McFarlane had not been dismissed because he was a Christian but because he had manifested his beliefs in a way that was contrary to Relate’s principles. In particular, Relate had a well-established and demonstrable commitment to providing services without discrimination.

The EAT also found that there was no indirect discrimination. Relate was justified in requiring its employees to commit to following its policy of providing a full range of counselling services to all sections of the community in a non-discriminatory manner. Where an employee refuses to comply with his employer’s fundamental principles, the employer does not have to compromise on those principles to accommodate employee requests.

The EAT’s decision follows a recent trend by the courts and tribunals to find that individuals’ beliefs and religious convictions should not be permitted to override the legal protection afforded to those who may otherwise be subjected to discrimination.

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