Religion at Work ?

04 March 2014

Work place religious discrimination claim

It is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably than an appropriate comparator because of his or her religious belief.

In a recent case a Tribunal looked at whether or not an employee had been dismissed because of her religion or because of the way she manifested her religious beliefs in the work place.

Ms Grace was a Christian and was employed from February 2011 at Places for Children as a Nursery Manager. On 16 November she was summarily dismissed by the Nursery’s Managing Director because of behaviour that was deemed to be inappropriate and to amount to harassment. The letter of dismissal stated that she had held unauthorised training sessions for staff members which gave rise to complaints from some of those who had attended; when a pregnant staff member revealed the contents of a dream, Ms Grace’s reaction had left her extremely scared, believing she would suffer a miscarriage; and Ms Grace left staff members uneasy and scared when she told a colleague that something was going to happen in the Nursery which would have a “massive ripple effect”. There was an allegation that that an HR Representative of the company had advised Ms Grace that it was against the company policy for her to hold bible sessions with those who had requested it and that the Managing Director had questioned the appropriateness of Ms Grace’s discussions of God in the work place.

Ms Grace brought a claim on the grounds of her religion and claimed £500,000.00 in damages.

Ms Grace’s claims were dismissed by the Tribunal. It found that the HR Representative had explained that while the Company was under a duty to afford a time and place for individuals to pray, it did not have to facilitate group prayer sessions and although it had not said it was opposed to group meetings to discuss the bible nor was there any policy of restricting the times when staff could discuss religious matters during breaks. In addition it accepted that the Managing Director had been concerned that Ms Grace’s actions blurred the boundaries between her work and matters which were not work related and also had an adverse effect on the well being of staff. The Tribunal stated that Ms Grace had not been mistreated because of her religion “but rather because the way in which she manifested or shared it”.

The Tribunal stated that Ms Grace would have been treated this way had she belonged to another religion or held no religion at all.

Ms Grace appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal. Again, her complaint was dismissed; the Appeal Tribunal believed that in this case the reason for the dismissal was separate from the Claimant’s religion in that Ms Grace had manifested religion in a way which was inappropriate and which upset members of staff.

Employers should be very careful when considering disciplining employees in relation to their religious beliefs, as Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights recognises both the absolute right to religious freedom and a qualified right to manifest religion.

Maxine Orr is a Partner, specialising in Employment Law, in Worthingtons Commercial Solicitors, Belfast.

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