Religion or Belief Discrimination

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The Problem

Imagine you have an employee who holds certain religious beliefs and who openly expresses these in the workplace. How do you deal with these expressions, especially if other employees are offended by these beliefs and how they are manifested? Are there ever circumstances where an employer can lawfully dismiss an employee who inappropriately manifests their religious beliefs in the workplace?

The Principle

This was the issue in the case of Grace v Places for Children.  Ms Grace was a children’s nursery manager who alleged unlawful religious discrimination, having been dismissed by her employer. Ms Grace was dismissed after she held an unauthorised training session, during which manifestations of her religious beliefs were expressed. This led to various complaints from other members of staff. Ms Grace alleged she had been dismissed or treated less favourably because of her religious beliefs.

The employment tribunal  dismissed the claim of unlawful religious discrimination and the employment appeal tribunal (EAT) rejected Ms Grace’s subsequent appeal. The EAT agreed she had not been dismissed because of her beliefs. The EAT noted Ms Grace was not dismissed because of her religious beliefs but, rather, because of the way in which she manifested those beliefs.

However, the EAT noted that there is “no clear dividing line between holding and manifesting a belief” and thus the EAT noted that any unjustified, unfavourable treatment because an employee had manifested their religious beliefs may amount to unlawful discrimination.

The Practice

This case accepts that an employee may be fairly dismissed if they manifest their beliefs in a way that is inappropriate and/or which upsets other members of staff. Such a dismissal will not be for an automatically impermissible reason and the employee will not have been subjected to any less favourable treatment. However, employers should be very careful when reacting to an employee’s beliefs or their manifestations when deciding what action is appropriate – there is still a danger the reaction could lead to successful unlawful discrimination claims.

As always, employers should remember that each case will be judged on its own facts.

For further help or advice please contact Tim Davies on 0191 211 7927.