Ruling allows minister to make sex discrimination claim

A church worker has won the right to challenge the church in court for alleged sexual discrimination.

Minister Helen Percy claimed she lost her job with the Church of Scotland after having sexual relations with a church elder. She said the discrimination arose because the church had “not taken similar action against male ministers who are known to have had/are having extra-marital sexual relationships”.

Traditionally, the clergy has been exempt from employment rights because members were deemed to be office holders, not employees, and as such were working for God, rather than an earthly organisation.

In Scotland, the Church of Scotland Act 1921 gives the church the right to govern its own affairs. The law says  the church is ‘subject to no civil authority to legislate… including the right to determine all questions concerning membership and office in the Church’.

The Court of Session – the highest court in Scotland – told the minister it could not hear her case for sex discrimination due to the nature of her employment.

However, the House of Lords has overturned this ruling, allowing ministers to argue that they have the same rights as employees in future cases.

Rachael Maskell, Amicus’ national officer for the non-profit sector, said ministers of religion should be treated the same as employees in regard as having the same employment rights.

“Discrimination is discrimination, whether you work as a minister for the church, or in a factory or office, and therefore the House of Lords ruling clarifies the argument that Amicus has made over the years,” she said.
“We believe that this ruling furthers the case that ministers should be employees when dealing with employment issues, and thus force the church to take full responsibility for responding to these issues.”

Last week’s Personnel Today revealed that the Church of England is planning to make ministers undergo business-style performance appraisals as it overhauls its HR practices in the coming months.

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