An employer may face a claim for direct discrimination where it treats an employee less favourably than it treats or would treat others because of that employee’s religious beliefs. However, where religious beliefs appear to infringe upon the rights of other workers, employers can be left in a difficult position. An Employment Tribunal has recently looked at an employer’s response to a Christian employee’s interactions with a lesbian colleague (LP).
Ms Mbuyi, a Christian nursery assistant, worked at Newpark Childcare alongside LP. During a conversation, LP asked what Ms Mbuyi believed God thought of her living arrangements. Ms Mbuyi told her that “God is not okay with what you do”, but added “we are all sinners”. Although LP did not make a formal complaint, Ms Mbuyi was subsequently invited to a disciplinary hearing. During the hearing it also emerged that Ms Mbuyi had previously given LP a bible as a gift after LP had been hospitalised. The bible included a handwritten note referring to LP’s “struggle”. Newpark concluded that Ms Mbuyi had harassed LP and dismissed her for gross misconduct. Ms Mbuyi brought claims for direct and indirect discrimination.
The Tribunal upheld Ms Mbuyi’s discrimination claims, finding that she had suffered discrimination because of her belief that homosexuality is a sin. The Tribunal emphasised that Ms Mbuyi had not initiated any conversation about religion in contravention of Newpark’s policies. It also heavily criticised the disciplinary process followed by Newpark, citing a catalogue of procedural failings and characterising its approach as construing almost anything said or done by Ms Mbuyi as targeting LP because of her sexuality, despite there being little or no supporting evidence. The Tribunal could only understand Ms Mbuyi’s treatment as arising from Newpark’s stereotypical assumptions about evangelical Christians and Newpark was unable to provide a non-discriminatory explanation for its actions.
Employers should note that the Tribunal’s decision was highly fact-sensitive. Inappropriate manifestations of religious beliefs could still provide grounds for a fair dismissal in certain circumstances, and the fact that an employee is invited to express an opinion is not a free pass to speak without repercussions. In this case, it was the employer’s flawed analysis of the evidence and its sub-standard disciplinary process that sealed its fate.