The employment tribunal completed its hearing of John Reaney’s discrimination claim against the diocese of Hereford on Monday (News, 13 April).
It heard, among other things, that the Church of England had “no firm position on homosexuality”. It then said that judgment would be reserved for several weeks.
Sue Johns, who has been a member of the General Synod for the diocese of Norwich since 1990, gave evidence in support of Mr Reaney. She had known him since 1997, when he became a youth officer in her diocese. The Church could not afford to lose the work of a man of his calibre, she said.
Noting that the Synod had never debated Issues in Human Sexuality (CHP, 1991), on which the Bishop of Hereford had relied earlier in the tribunal, she referred to documents from the General Synod sessions in February, as evidence of the current approach in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. These included the Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address, the House of Bishops background note (GS Misc 842B) for the debate on lesbian and gay Christians, and the resolution passed by the Synod.
Mrs Johns told the tribunal: “The Church of England has no consistency and no firm position on homosexuality. In addition, there are vast differences from one parish to another.”
Counsel for both sides then presented submissions, and were questioned by the tribunal chairman. Most facts in the case are undisputed, and it turns largely on the interpretation of the religious-exemption clause in the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, which make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal (News, 5 April), and also on the identification of a “comparator” for testing the question of discrimination.
Counsel for the diocese insisted that the only correct comparison should be with an unmarried heterosexual man who declared that he had recently left a long-term sexual relationship. The Bishop had said that such a person would be subjected to exactly the same requirement of abstention from sexual activity as was Mr Reaney.
Counsel also argued that it was reasonable for the Bishop not to be satisfied with the undertakings given by Mr Reaney: that he would abstain, and would consult the Bishop if his circumstances changed.
Counsel for Mr Reaney argued that the High Court’s judicial review of the Regulations (News, 30 April 2004) had established that the religious exemption must be interpreted extremely narrowly to ensure that it remained compatible with European law; the tribunal was bound by that decision.
The scope of the exemption could not be extended to a lay employee merely by the Bishop’s choosing to describe him as a “minister of the gospel”. She argued that, in law, Mr Reaney would not be employed for the “purposes of an organised religion”.
Afterwards, Alison Downie, John Reaney’s solicitor, said: “My client has received many messages of support from outside and within the Churches — for which he is very grateful. All my client seeks is fair treatment in accordance with the law.”
A spokeswoman for the diocese of Hereford said: “We will comment further when judgment is received.”