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Expressing personal beliefs in the workplace – dangerous territory?

16 June 2015

In yet another case of this ilk to hit the headlines, an Employment Tribunal addresses the difficult conflict between religious belief and sexual orientation. In this case, the Employment Tribunal found that the Claimant had been discriminated against, and unfairly dismissed, on the grounds of her religious belief.

In yet another case of this ilk to hit the headlines, an Employment Tribunal addresses the difficult conflict between religious belief and sexual orientation. In this case, the Employment Tribunal found that the Claimant had been discriminated against, and unfairly dismissed, on the grounds of her religious belief.

The Claimant, Miss Mbuyi, was employed as a nursery assistant by the Respondent. The Claimant was an evangelical Christian and she worked with an employee who was a lesbian and living in a civil partnership with a woman (referred to as “LP” in the Judgment). It appeared that initially the two employees had a pleasant working relationship.

However, in a casual conversation between the two employees about what they had been doing over the Christmas holidays, the Claimant informed LP that she had been involved with a number of church activities. LP expressed that it must be nice to have this “extended family”, but that she would not be interested in going to church because she could not get married there.

The Claimant then proceeded to share her understanding of Biblical teachings and homosexuality; namely, that it was a sin, although she added that “everyone sins”. LP viewed this as a personal attack, she became very upset and informed her employer although she did not raise a formal complaint. The Claimant was invited to a disciplinary hearing and was subsequently dismissed for harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In a lengthy and carefully reasoned Judgment, the Employment Tribunal found that the Claimant had been unfairly dismissed and discriminated against on the grounds of her belief that homosexuality was a sin. The Employment Tribunal confirmed that this belief was capable of protection and should not be confused with homophobia. The Judgment acknowledged that limits can be placed on the manifestation of such beliefs in the workplace, but in this case there was no evidence that the Claimant was foisting her belief on others. In particular, it was LP who had taken the conversation into “dangerous territory” by instigating a discussion about the church and her own sexual orientation. The Claimant had simply responded to that.

The employer, on the other hand, had dismissed the Claimant because they found her belief unpalatable. Unlike other similar cases, there was no evidence that the Claimant had been inappropriately forcing her beliefs on others following a series of warnings. The disciplinary procedure was also flawed, for example the dismissal hearing had largely involved a discussion about what the Claimant believed, rather than what had actually been said and there was also a very limited investigation.

Putting the arguments of religious belief and sexual orientation to one side, the Judgment in this case is a common sense one but illustrates that there will often be a fine line between sharing beliefs and forcing them on others – each case will be fact sensitive. Employers are still required and entitled to take action if employees are inappropriately manifesting their beliefs in the workplace, but at the same time employers should recognise that normal workplace conversations often involve discussions about private life. It would be impractical and over the top to prohibit employees from talking about their beliefs in work.

In this case, rather than dismissing the Claimant, the employer could have asked her to bear in mind LP’s distress and not discuss her religious belief about sexual orientation from then on, or only do so in her own time outside work (although again taking care to ensure that any such discussions are not brought back into the workplace or affect relationships with colleagues).

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