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Christian NHS worker loses unlawful-discrimination case

08 May 2015


Lawfully-disciplined: Victoria Wasteney 

Lawfully-disciplined: Victoria Wasteney 

AN NHS trust had not subjected a Christian employee to unlawful discrimination or harassment on grounds of religious belief when it disciplined her for talking about her faith, and praying with a Muslim colleague, an employment tribunal ruled.

The East London NHS Foundation Trust is a public-sector employer that provides mental-health and community-care services to the City of London and the London boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Redbridge.

In 2007, Victoria Wasteney began working for the trust as head of forensic occupational therapy. Her main place of work was the John Howard Centre, a mental-health facility with secure accommodation, where patients are admitted under the Mental Health Act 1983.

Miss Wasteney describes herself as a born-again Christian who attends the Christian Revival Church (CRC), which she described as an Evangelical church. She complained to the employment tribunal that she had been subjected to unlawful discrimination and harassment in respect of disciplinary proceedings brought against her by the NHS trust. As a result of the proceedings, she was made subject to a final warning, which was subsequently reduced on appeal to a first written warning.

The disciplinary hearing had taken place after a complaint by an occupational therapist, Enya Nawaz, a Muslim of Pakistani origin. Miss Wasteney was not Miss Nawaz's manager, but, as head of occupational therapy, she had indirect management responsibility for her.

Miss Nawaz said that she had been bullied and harassed by Miss Wasteney who, Miss Nawaz said, had been trying to impose Christian religious views on her by inviting her to attend events and services at the CRC, and giving her CRC literature and DVDs.

Miss Nawaz said that Miss Wasteney had routinely asked Miss Nawaz to pray with her, and that there was one occasion when Miss Wasteney laid hands on her. She alleged that Miss Wasteney's conduct was causing her stress, and had affected her health.

Miss Wasteney was suspended pending an investigation. The investigation concluded that Miss Wasteney's actions had blurred the boundaries between manager and subordinate. Miss Wasteney acknowledged that praying with or over Miss Nawaz might be considered "outside her remit", but said that she was on her lunch break at the time, and would ordinarily be praying.

She claimed before the employment tribunal that her rights under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms had been violated when she was punished for inviting Miss Nawaz to events which had happened outside working hours, and to which Miss Nawaz had willingly consented, or, alternatively, which she had encouraged by failing to object.

Paul Diamond, who appeared for Miss Wasteney in the employment tribunal, argued that the case raised important points arising from Article 9 of the Convention, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. He argued that Article 9 gave individuals the right not only to display their religious beliefs by what, for example, they wore, but also to talk about their beliefs to others, even if that might constitute proselytising (although he did not accept that Miss Wasteney had been proselytising).

He argued that Convention rights applied to the workplace, and that, as a public body, the NHS trust had a particular duty to implement them. He said that there was no evidence of harassment of Miss Nawaz by Miss Wasteney to justify the disciplinary hearing and the sanction imposed on her.

The employment tribunal rejected Miss Wasteney's claim. Miss Nawaz's complaint was a serious one, the tribunal said, and the NHS trust would have been rightly criticised if it had not investigated it.

Miss Wasteney suggested that she and other Christians were at "constant threat of disciplinary action" because of the policy of the NHS trust. The employment tribunal rejected that proposition, and said that "any senior manager who fails to maintain an appropriate boundary between their personal beliefs and their role in the workplace, such that junior employees feel under pressure to behave or think in certain ways, is likely to be the subject of disciplinary proceedings."

The employment tribunal said that the only instance of different treatment because of religion or belief about which it heard some evidence concerned a perception among some Christian employees that the NHS trust made greater efforts to respect Muslims' observance of Friday prayers than the attendance of Christians at Sunday services. Nevertheless, the tribunal said that it was unnecessary to make any finding on that allegation in order to determine the issues in Miss Wasteney's case.

The employment tribunal's ruling has been criticised by Christian groups. The national director of Christian Voice, Stephen Green, said that "an atmosphere of fear is growing where a Christian cannot have a low-key and inoffensive dialogue with a Muslim colleague without fear of being suspended or sacked for misconduct."

Britain was, he said, becoming like a country where "prayer is a crime . . . it is illegal to share your faith . . . carrying a Bible will have you arrested . . . [and] where practising the Christian faith is illegal".

Miss Wasteney is expected to appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

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