Discrimination on the Grounds of Religion or Belief
The recent Employment Tribunal claim brought by Lillian Ladele, an Islington Town Hall Registrar, who was unwilling to officiate at ‘gay weddings’ (ie Civil Partnership ceremonies) because of her religious beliefs.
How does it affect me?
The case throws up a number of practical and legal issues which employers will need to be aware of, and take account of, when dealing with situations which could give rise to claims of this kind.
Where is the balance to be struck?
Islington Council found itself faced with having to take account of Ms Ladele’s religious beliefs on the one hand whilst, at the same time, needing to have regard to its legal obligations to perform civil ceremonies and also its own internal procedures which included a ‘Dignity-for-All’ policy and Code of Conduct which no doubt prohibit discriminatory behaviour by its employees.
The outcome of the case is not likely to be known for several months but the decision, when it comes, will give invaluable guidance in this respect.
It is likely that the Council in their defence will, amongst other things, assert that their handling of the situation is justified and so is not discriminatory.
A defence of justification will succeed where, when judged objectively, the behaviour complained of is found to have been justifiable, being a proportionate means by which to achieve a legitimate aim.
Harassment and Victimisation
Ms Ladele has claimed not only that she has been the victim of discrimination but also of harassment and victimisation.
Even where an employer’s practices or procedures are found not to have discriminatory, they can still find themselves liable to the employee for harassment and/or victimisation where the employee’s dignity has been violated due to the existence of an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment or where the employee has been victimised in any way as a consequence of, or in connection with, their discrimination complaint.
In Ms Ladele’s case, she has alleged amongst other things that:-
- Colleagues acted in a different, hostile way towards her and that she was publicly humiliated by comments made about her
- She was shunned by some colleagues
- She was given significantly fewer marriage ceremonies
These are classic examples of the types of behaviour which can, if substantiated, result in a victimisation or harassment claim being upheld.
What do I Need to Do?
So far as the outcome of this particular case is concerned, it’s a question of watch this space.
The key things to take from it are:-
- Be alert to situations where complaints of discrimination could be brought
- Ensure that the legal implications of any such complaints are considered carefully: long-standing practices which are acceptable to the majority could still be discriminatory to some and so should be re-assessed
- Ensure that managers and colleagues avoid treatment which could amount to harassment or victimisation, whether or not the original complaint is believed to be well-founded
If you have any queries regarding these or any other employment law issues, please contact Paul Lane on 020 7712 1715 or by email email@example.com