Counsellor has his day in court

03 December 2008

by Ed Beavan

GARY McFARLANE, a Christian counsellor who refused to give sex advice to gay couples when he worked for the Relate charity, this week had his claim for unfair dismissal and religious discrimination heard by an employment tribunal in Bristol (News, 31 October).

Mr McFarlane, who works as a solicitor in London but is based in Bristol, said he was happy to give relationship advice to same-sex couples; but he could not in con­science offer them cognitive sexual technique counselling, due to his Christian beliefs.

Mr McFarlane started training with the Avon branch of Relate in May 2003, before being suspended in October 2007 and then reinstated in January this year.

Following a further disciplinary hearing he was dismissed on 18 March. Relate said that Mr McFarlane’s unwillingness to offer sex advice to homosexuals was a breach of their equal-opportunity policy.

During the hearing, Mr McFarlane, who was being represented by Paul Diamond of the Christian Legal Centre, spoke of the “inner-turmoil” he had experienced on the issue. He also said that he was a victim of a campaign by colleagues who labelled him homophobic.

During the hearing, Keith Knight, representing Relate, accepted that the charity had wrongfully dismissed Mr McFarlane on the grounds of gross misconduct; instead it should have given him notice to leave after deciding it had lost trust and confidence in his ability.

Mr McFarlane said that, although Relate had admitted this procedural point, it would not necessarily have any bearing on the judgment. He is claiming unfair dismissal, harassment, and discrimination on the grounds of religion.

Speaking on Wednesday, he said: “This has never been about Gary McFarlane. This has always been about the fact that . . . the balance of rights is tilted too far one way.”

He said that, if he lost the tribunal, it would have serious implications for both Christian and non-Christian counsellors, “who are looking on with some consternation knowing that if this can happen to me it could happen to them”.

The tribunal panel reserved judgment, and is expected to publish its decision in two weeks’ time.

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