The disciplining of nine Scottish firefighters who refused to attend a gay pride festival last month raises the question of how much moral autonomy exists in contracts of employment.
Strathclyde Fire and Rescue said its firefighters’ refusal to provide safety advice to people at the Pride Scotia event was “a fundamental breach of one of their core responsibilities”.
“Firefighters cannot, and will not, pick and choose to whom they offer fire safety advice,” a spokesman said.
One of the managers at the service was subsequently demoted and suffered a £5,000 salary cut, and all nine are to undergo intensive diversity training.
But is it right to expect staff to take part in events that contradict their own moral beliefs? Should the firefighters have been punished for expressing their convictions? And how far are workers protected by their religious and moral beliefs?
Jon Whiteley, head of diversity at Capital Consulting, said that employers had a clear responsibility not to put their employees in an intimidating situation where they may be subjected to harassment. “There have been incidents where firefighters have been exposed to taunts and teasing from the gay community,” he said.
The incident has sparked a blazing debate in Scotland, with several Christian groups and gay campaigners voicing their views.
Archbishop of Glasgow Mario Conti said it was wrong of the service to expect firefighters to participate and support a gay pride event. Not because homosexual people should not be given fire safety advice, he said, but because the men felt uncomfortable about the ‘kiss-a-fireman’ campaign allegedly planned for the event.
Strathclyde Fire and Rescue said it had a responsibility to protect all the people in the community it serves, irrespective of race, religion or sexual orientation. Whiteley agreed, but said the core responsibilities of the job needed to be balanced with the employer’s responsibility towards its staff. Consultation on this between the employer and the employee was fundamental, he said.
Calum Irving, director at gay rights group Stonewall Scotland, believes the Strathclyde case was a homophobic issue. “It is not political correctness to ask public servants to do their job. Lesbian and gay people pay taxes too. Had these firefighters refused to go to a mosque or a church, there would have been justified outrage,” he said.
This would imply that the issue was more pertinent to the public sector than the private sector. But Warren Wayne, partner in the employment team at law firm Bird & Bird, said there were no major differences between the two sectors when it came to moral beliefs.
“It’s essentially about the arrangement between the employer and employee,” he said.
Wayne said an employee needed to demonstrate that their moral beliefs were a way of life. “Theoretically, employees should be protected by their religious and moral beliefs,” he said. “But unless the employee could demonstrate that they belonged to a religious group or practised their belief, they would not automatically qualify for protection.”
Contracts of employment and work responsibilities should take moral or religious beliefs into account, Wayne said. “You have to consider what the scope of the job role is and whether it was reasonable of the employer to give the employee that instruction.”
Archbishop Conti said the the story had massively backfired on Strathclyde Fire and Rescue.
“Isn’t it a little ironic that what started out as an attempt to show the service’s tolerant attitudes has ended up as a PR disaster, showing intolerance of its own employees’ consciences and sensitivities?” he said.
War correspondent refuses Iraq assignment
The significance of an employee’s job role and employers’ expectations was highlighted in another case last month, when a war correspondent lost his appeal for refusing to cover the Iraq war.
Richard Gizbert was fired in June 2005, after 11 years at ABC News, for refusing to work in Iraq. Gizbert, who had worked in both Bosnia and Chechnya, said his family took priority and refused to risk his life to report on the conflict in Iraq.
He agreed to a salary cut and to work on a freelance contract but was sacked after two years and claimed that his refusal to go to Iraq was the main reason.
Gizbert claimed £2.3m for unfair dismissal on the grounds of health and safety and redundancy payments, but the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that he was not unfairly dismissed. ABC said Gizbert had been made redundant because of financial cutbacks.
Scottish Executive backs bid to end homophobia at work