A Conflict of Values – Are Religious Beliefs Protected by Discrimination Law?
Could a school chaplain claim that he had suffered belief discrimination, following the school’s response to his sermon on LGBT issues?
Under the Equality Act 2010, religion and belief is a “protected characteristic” meaning that a person is discriminated against where they are treated less favourably due to their religion or belief. Religious beliefs, whether in the central tenets of the religion, or merely beliefs which exist within a religion but that are not shared by the whole collective, are protected. Philosophical beliefs are also protected, and include things like humanism, secularism and atheism. Philosophical beliefs are things that you strongly and genuinely believe in, concerning an important aspect of human life and behaviour; but a philosophical belief must be acceptable in a democratic society and must not conflict with the fundamental rights of others, in order for it to be protected.
In Randall v Trent College Limited, a school chaplain, Randall, gave a sermon in the school chapel, following the school’s adoption of the “Educate and Celebrate” programme, which sought to tackle “homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and ingrained attitudes in schools”. Randall opposed the programme, which he described as “identity politics”, arguing that it went beyond merely tackling bullying and was contrary to Christian values. During his sermon, Randall addressed this “conflict of values” and said that students did not have to accept the “ideas and ideologies of LGBT activists” when they conflicted with Christian values and should instead come to their own conclusions.
Numerous complaints were made by staff and pupils following the sermon, and disciplinary proceedings followed. Initially, Randall was dismissed for gross misconduct, but was then reinstated following an appeal process. However, he was later made redundant.
Randall brought claims of religion and belief discrimination, harassment and unfair dismissal. The Employment Tribunal held that Randall’s treatment had not been because of his beliefs, but rather because of his “objectionable manifestation” of them, referring to the case of Page v NHS Trust Development Authority. We have considered the difference between holding a protected belief and the objectionable manifestation of such a belief in our article on gender critical beliefs in the workplace – you can read more about this here.
Randall had previously given sermons on a variety of sensitive topics, including marriage, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The school had warned him that these matters should only be dealt with in a classroom setting, where ideas could be discussed and challenged – the chapel setting prevented such discussion from taking place, and there was therefore a greater risk of causing distress to vulnerable LGBT+ students. In ignoring the school and delivering the sermon regardless, Randall had acted contrary to his safeguarding duties to pupils. The school was therefore entitled to object to Randall’s manifestation of his beliefs and dismiss him.
This case is an important reminder that, while the Equality Act will provide a shield to individuals with religious or philosophical beliefs, even where these beliefs might be considered unpalatable, this shield will fall away where the individual in question manifests these beliefs in a way that is objectionable. It will not always be clear whether the manifestation of a belief is sufficiently “objectionable” – the Tribunal in Forstater v CGD Europe found that the mocking and satirising of gender self-identification was not unreasonably objectionable, describing it as the “common currency of debate in a democratic society”. Even in clear cases, employers should take proportionate steps and ensure that they can justify any disciplinary action taken to avoid a successful discrimination claim. We would recommend obtaining legal advice in such circumstances.
There are also practical steps that employers can take to try and mitigate risk. While employers should be careful not to tolerate certain beliefs while censoring others, they should ensure that internal policies are clear on what conduct is acceptable in the workplace, to deter the objectionable manifestation of any such beliefs. A comprehensive social media policy may also be desirable, to ensure that employees understand the potential repercussions of expressing their beliefs publicly in an objectionable manner, especially where this might bring the employer into disrepute. Training for managers on how to deal with issues relating to sensitive matters of religion or belief may also help to resolve workplace tensions without the need for disproportionate disciplinary action.
We can help with drafting your internal policies, including social media policies, and can deliver training to help avoid the issues mentioned. If you would be interested in such policies or training, or require any other employment law advice, then please do get in touch at [email protected]