Religious rights at work

Q Does the Ladele case – where registrar Lillian Ladele won religious discrimination case after refusing to officiate at civic partnerships – prove that religion is more influential in the workplace than ever?

Mike Judge
Head of communications,
Christian Institute

Respecting conscientious objection is a fundamental part of any society that embraces freedom. The Ladele tribunal only found what the law applies for anyway – it is not a new development.

Terry Sanderson
National Secular Society

There is no doubt Ladele was treated badly by her colleagues and they did things that are totally unacceptable, such as posting confidential documents concerning her on the internet. But the idea that she – or anyone – should not have to fulfil all the duties of their job because they have religious objections means that someone else is going to suffer discrimination because of it. In this case, it was gay couples wishing to register their civil partnerships, which is perfectly legal.

Q Should public sector employees be allowed to opt out of certain tasks on religious grounds even if this hampers their ability to serve the community?

Mike Judge There are plenty of occupations that already allow you to opt out through religious conscience. Teachers don’t have to take part in morning assembly if they don’t believe in the religious aspect of it, while doctors aren’t forced to carry out abortions if they have an ethical objection to it. Both work in the public sector and do not lose their jobs for taking a stand on conscience.

Terry Sanderson This is not comparable to a doctor refusing to carry out an abortion. It is reasonable to have a conscientious objection to any procedure that involves the beginning and end of life – doctors may not wish to be involved in switching off life support equipment, for instance. But refusing to carry out a civil partnership, or providing any other service to the rest of the community, because of a religious objection is completely unacceptable.

Q Was this simply a case of Islington Council mishandling the situation?

Mike Judge The tribunal found that the way Islington responded to those complaints was an act of discrimination, as it was willing to act at a moment’s notice to protect gay rights but showed no interest in protecting the rights of religious people. The tribunal found that requiring all registrars to perform civil partnerships was also indirect discrimination against Ladele, as she could not do so in good conscience. The other thing that’s significant is that it did not affect service provision. No same-sex couple was denied registration, as plenty of Ladele’s colleagues were willing and able to provide the service. Islington Council just did not like the view she expressed.

Terry Sanderson The Christian Institute says people don’t understand the meaning of religious freedom. For them it seems to mean that religion trumps everything and that everyone else’s rights must be secondary to those who claim religion as their motivating force. They say that gay couples could have had their partnership registered by another registrar. By the same reasoning, Ladele could find another job that does not present this dilemma for her.

Q Did the tribunal reach the right decision?

Mike Judge There have been some ridiculous comments about what will come next will Christian firemen refuse to save Muslims from a burning house? Throughout her career Ladele has been respectful to all sections of the community and would have no qualms registering the death of a partner within a homosexual relationship or the birth of a baby born through IVF to a lesbian couple. Registering the union of a same-sex civil partnership is entirely different because it meant she would actively facilitate a union she does not agree with. To label her as homophobic just because of this one aspect of her beliefs is totally unfair.

Terry Sanderson In an interview with the Daily Mail, Ladele said she ‘would not be able to conduct civil partnerships because it states in the Bible that marriage occurs between a man and a woman, not people of the same sex’. However, she does not object to re-marrying people who have been divorced, which is something else forbidden in the Bible. Her inconsistency and focus on not wanting to conduct gay ceremonies showed her biblical loyalty is selective, and the tribunal should not have left her religious assertions unchallenged. She should have been properly cross-examined on them.

Q What precedent does this set for employment law?

Mike Judge People reacting to the case have failed to understand the meaning of religious liberty. A fireman saving someone from a burning house does not necessarily agree with the lifestyle of the individual. Yet there was a recent case where some Roman Catholic firemen in Glasgow were asked to take part in a gay rights march and objected. These areas of conscience are easily misunderstood. The offence was when Islington dismissed Ladele’s religious beliefs out of hand and threatened to discipline her and sack her because of her beliefs. Ladele was asking to be respected: not agreed with. And this is something already accommodated for within the law.

Terry Sanderson The Ladele case is only the tip of the iceberg of conflict over religion in the workplace. In the US, cases of religious discrimination at work number second only to sex discrimination cases. It has reached a pretty pass when employment tribunals have to rule on theological issues, and this is the result of the increasing intrusion of religion into the workplace. It is time that employers were given the right to declare their workplaces to be secular spaces, where religion must take a back seat.

Religious trap?

While it may seem that religious influence is rapidly seeping into the workplace, the truth is that good employers are very unlikely to be troubled by a tribunal case on those grounds. Here’s why:

  • The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations came into force in December 2003.
  • The Employment Tribunal service reports that claims of discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief have risen continually ever since, with an increase of 50% in 2005-06 compared with the previous year and a further 33% increase in 2006-07.
  • There were just 648 claims in 2006-07 out of a total of 238,546. That’s less than 2% of all discrimination claims. Of these, only 12 cases were actually successful at tribunal.
  • The 2001 census found that 71.6% of the UK population considers itself Christian, compared with 2.7% Muslim and 1% Hindu. A further 15.5% claimed to have no religion at all and 7.3% refused to answer the question.
  • Some 77% of those covered by the census in England and Wales identified with a religion, compared with 86% in Northern Ireland and 67% in Scotland.

Source: Employers Forum on Belief/Tribunals Service)

The regulations

On 2 December 2008, the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations will be five years old. They make it unlawful to:

  • Treat anyone less favourably because of their religion or belief.
  • Apply a criterion, provision or practice that places people of a particular religion or belief at a disadvantage, unless it can be objectively justified.
  • Subject someone to conduct that violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
  • Victimise someone because they have made or intend to make a complaint on the grounds of religion or belief.
  • Discriminate or harass someone in certain circumstances after the working relationship has ended.

The only grounds for an exemption is if there’s a genuine occupational requirement for a worker to be of a particular religion or belief to do the job or to comply with the religious or belief ethos of the organisation.

Source: Acas

Comments are closed.