Employers need to have a clear non-discriminatory reason for action when dealing with religious expression
The tension between religion and sexual orientation in discrimination claims has seen a number of high-profile court cases in recent years. These cases have tested the interplay of protection from discrimination in the Equality Act 2010 and the rights to manifest religion or belief in the workplace.
Case details:Page v NHS Trust Development Authority
Mr Page was a non-executive director of an NHS Trust who also happened to be a magistrate. In 2014, whilst part of a panel of magistrates hearing an adoption application, he expressed his view that a child ought to be brought up by a mother and father and that it was 'not normal' to be adopted by a single parent or same-sex couple. Concerned that Mr Page was unable to fulfil his oath of office to apply the law impartially, his fellow magistrates complained and Mr Page was subject to disciplinary action.
Newspapers and radio stations became interested in the story and Mr Page gave several interviews in which he said the disciplinary action against him was 'saying I was a Christian and therefore I was prejudiced' and that as a Christian his views would naturally be brought into his decision-making.
Mr Page did not inform the Trust about the disciplinary action or about the media coverage. The Trust only found out when a complaint was received from the chair of its LGBT Staff Network, who noted that Mr Page's publicity and association with the Trust was undermining the Trust's ability to serve the local LGBT community.
The Trust warned Mr Page that publicly expressing his views could undermine the Trust's ability to deliver services. Mr Page was instructed to inform the Trust of any further media interest before he gave interviews.
However, Mr Page continued to give interviews without warning the Trust he was doing so. As a result of these interviews he was removed as a magistrate. When the Trust learned about his further media appearances and his removal from the magistracy it scheduled a meeting to discuss developments with Mr Page.
The day before the Trust and Mr Page were due to meet he again appeared on TV for an interview, during which he stated his belief that homosexuality was wrong and that he did not agree with same-sex marriage. The following day the Trust met Mr Page and told him that because he had contacted the media against instruction, he was being suspended and an investigation into the matter would be launched.
It was ultimately decided that Mr Page's tenure as non-executive director could not continue based on the events outlined above having a negative impact on the Trust's ability to serve the local LGBT community. In addition, the review panel noted that Mr Page had failed to acknowledge the impact his actions had on his credibility as a non-executive director of the Trust, and that he had failed to demonstrate 'any kind of remorse or insight' into the consequences that his actions might have.
Mr Page brought claims of direct and indirect discrimination against the Trust on the grounds that he had been removed from office because of his religious beliefs. In addition, he claimed victimisation for alleging he had been disciplined for being a Christian and that his rights under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) were breached. An employment tribunal dismissed all of his claims. Mr Page appealed.
The EAT dismissed all grounds of appeal. In its decision, the EAT was clear that the tribunal was entitled to find that there was no discriminatory reason for Mr Page's dismissal. The tribunal had found that the employer dismissed Mr Page because of the impact his public statements had on the Trust's ability to deliver services to a vulnerable community, not because of the views themselves. This had been exacerbated by Mr Page ignoring the Trust's warning to notify them of any further media appearances, which he failed to do.
The EAT also agreed with the tribunal that Mr Page's Article 9 (right to freedom of religion) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) ECHR rights were not infringed by the Trust's actions. The EAT confirmed that the Mr Page's actions in giving media interviews were not 'intimately linked' to his religion; being asked not to give media interviews without the Trust's permission did not prevent him from holding his beliefs or practising his religion.
Mr Page's case against the Trust flowed from the disciplinary action taken in respect of his magistracy. Despite warnings not to, Mr Page prioritised publicly expressing his religious views and views in regard to his magistracy over the potential impact this could have on the Trust's obligation to serve a particular community. It was relatively straightforward for the tribunal and EAT to determine that the Trust's actions were as a result of a clear non-discriminatory decision based on misconduct in office. Mr Page's attempts to bind together his right to his religious beliefs, his right to publicly express them, and his job did not convince the tribunal or EAT.
This case continues to underline to employers the importance of having good documentary evidence of warnings and the reasons for any disciplinary action taken so that an employer can clearly demonstrate non-discriminatory reasons for their actions.
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