Court ruling clarifies position on employees objecting to aspects of their work on religious grounds

The Court of Appeal's decision in the case of Lillian Ladele vs London Borough of Islington clarifies the position for employers when their employees object to carrying out aspects of their jobs because of their religious beliefs.

Lillian Ladele was a registrar whose orthodox Christian beliefs on marriage meant she did not wish to participate in conducting civil partnership ceremonies. She claimed that her employer's treatment of her - she has now resigned - was both direct and indirect religious discrimination and also that she was harassed by her gay colleagues who accused her of being homophobic. 

Her claims were all upheld by the tribunal originally, but rejected by the Employment Appeal Tribunal and now by the Court of Appeal. They found that as a public authority the council had been entitled to require all registrars to perform all their duties and that Ladele could not choose only to do those that fitted with her religious beliefs, particularly as those views involved discrimination against service users on the grounds of sexual orientation.

As the Court pointed out: "It would have been no more acceptable for someone with Ms Ladele's views to refuse to perform civil partnerships than it would have been for a militant gay registrar to refuse to perform marriages between people who, for religious reasons, objected to homosexual relationships or civil partnerships."  There was no room for compromise if the policy was to be upheld. Ladele remained free to hold her beliefs and to worship as she wished.

It is important for HR managers to note that in addition to considering the Employment Equality Regulations passed in 2003 relating to sexual orientation and religion and belief, the Court of Appeal took note of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. It held that these regulations, which prohibit discrimination in the delivery to the public of goods facilities or services, took precedence over any right that a person would otherwise have by virtue of his or her religion or religious belief or faith, to practise discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

This does not mean employers should always be rigid in their strict adherence to an equality and diversity policy. Every request for some form of flexibility in practice must be carefully considered.

It may be possible to accommodate some requests while upholding the policy. The employer will need to establish its legitimate aims in pursuing the policy and demonstrate that in practice it has adopted a proportionate means of achieving those aims. 

However, striking the balance may be difficult in practice, and the impact of granting or refusing a request  - or putting some other compromise in place - needs to be fully assessed. 

As a public-sector organisation, with a remit to deliver a public service, there was a strong human rights argument in this case, as Islington has a duty to conduct civil partnership marriages.  However, the result of this case might have been different if the employer had been a private-sector organisation.

Rachel Dineley is a partner and heads the discrimination and diversity unit at Beachcroft