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Employment tribunal rejects religious-belief appeal

21 March 2014

SHUTTERSTOCK

AN EMPLOYEE who was dismissed for manifesting her religion in an inappropriate manner, which upset fellow employees, had not been subjected to unlawful discrimination on the grounds of her religious beliefs, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled when it upheld a decision of the Employment Tribunal.

The EAT, however, which is a court of record whose decisions set a precedent that other courts must follow, said that there was no clear dividing line in principle between the right to hold a belief and the right to manifest it, and that each case depended on its particular facts.

Anna Grace was employed as a nursery manager at Places for Children, in Islington, London, from 28 February 2011 to 16 November 2011, when she was dismissed.

The reasons given were: that she had held an unauthorised training session for staff members which gave rise to complaints; that Ms Grace's reaction to a pregnant staff-member's dream had frightened that staff member into believing that she would have a miscarriage; and that Ms Grace had warned another member of staff that something was going to happen in the nursery, and that that had left the staff member uneasy and afraid.

Ms Grace said that she had been subjected to unlawful discrimination because of a protected characteristic, namely, her religion, and she sought compensation of £500,000. She alleged that she had been told that it was not company policy for her to hold Bible sessions with those who had consented to it, and that it was unsuitable to have discussions and conversations about God with staff in the workplace.

The employers denied the allegations, and said that they had told Ms Grace that they were under a duty to afford a time and place for individuals to pray, but not to facilitate group prayer-sessions, and had not said that they were opposed to groups meeting to discuss the Bible. Further, the employers did not have a policy of restricting the times when staff could discuss religious matters during their break.

The Employment Tribunal concluded that Ms Grace "was not treated as she was because of her religion, but rather because of the way in which she manifested . . . it".

Ms Grace appealed to the EAT, which agreed with the Employment Tribunal's judgment, but emphasised that that judgment should not be read as drawing a distinction in principle between holding a religious belief and manifesting it.

Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms recognises both the absolute right to religious freedom and the qualified right to manifest religion. Both rights are referred to in the Code of Practice 2011 issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The EAT agreed that there was no clear dividing line between holding a belief and manifesting a belief, and that an unjustified unfavourable treatment because an employee had manifested his or her religion could amount to unlawful discrimination. A careful examination of the facts was required.

If the reasons of the Employment Tribunal were to be read as drawing a clear dividing line between holding a belief and manifesting it, the EAT would not agree. The Employment Tribunal's reasons were not to be read in that sense, however.

In Ms Grace's case, she had manifested her religion in a way that was inappropriate, and which upset members of staff. So the dismissal was not for an impermissible reason. The Employment Tribunal had reached its conclusion for sustainable reasons, the EAT said.

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