Is a religious belief a defence to promoting outdated views?

Category: Employment

The Story:

There are times in life when we peer into the sympathy bucket and find it empty.  One such occasion happened recently when we heard about Kristie Higgs; a pastoral assistant at a Farmor’s School in Gloucestershire, losing her job.

Many of you will be aware that under new guidance from the Department for Education on Relationships Educations, Relations and Sex Education and Health Education has said that pupils should be taught about lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans- relationships in secondary schools; however, the Department of Education has left the issue up to primary schools to decide.

The No Outsiders programme has been introduced across a number of primary schools to teach children about the Equality Act. It’s also set to teach children to be proud of who they are while recognizing and celebrating difference and diversity. The programme uses books which include, amongst other subject matter, two male penguins that raise a chick together and a boy who likes to dress up like a mermaid.

This programme was due to be introduced to Ms Higgs’ son’s primary school; once it had been, she removed him from those lessons due to her Christian beliefs.

Of course, Ms Higgs is entitled to hold whatever beliefs that she wishes; however, she decided to manifest these beliefs in a somewhat unfortunate manner.

What happened next?

Ms Higgs objected to the introduction of the No Outsider programme and posted two posts on Facebook. The first said:

 

“Please sign this petition, they have already started to brainwash our innocent wonderfully created children and it’s happening in our local primary school now.”

 

What exactly these children were being brainwashed with is unclear.  Perhaps she was worried that children were being brainwashed with a sense of fairness and inclusion rather than a clear cut approach to right and wrong?

In a second post, Ms Higgs shared an article from Judybeth.com on the rise of transgender ideology in children’s books in American schools.  Just to ensure that it was personal to her, she added her own comment: “This is happening in our primary schools now.

Judy Beth, for those who do not know, is an enlightened individual, clearly qualified to talk to matters of children’s education, given that she is a freelance writer and political commentator who has even been published in the Charleston Daily Mail.  Amongst her enlightened views, Judy Beth believes that “Americans must reclaim their nation by eliminating the forces of the progressive movement which threaten individual liberty and Christianity”.

An anonymous complaint was received by Ms Higgs’ employer in respect of the posts and, following a disciplinary hearing, Ms Higgs’ employment was terminated on the grounds of gross misconduct for bringing the school in to disrepute.

 

A claim for unfair dismissal and religious discrimination

Ms Higgs is now bringing a claim against her employer on the grounds of unfair dismissal and religious discrimination.  Ignoring the fairness, or otherwise, of the dismissal (there was no evidence that the posts had brought the school in to disrepute),  is the Christian Legal Centre, which is backing Ms Higgs’ claim, correct that “this is all about the freedom of Christians to hold biblical views”?

 

So what approach will a Tribunal likely take?  In reality, there is scope for the protection of religious beliefs and the protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation to clash as some religious groups hold strong views opposing homosexuality.

Tribunals have repeatedly found that, whilst employers should not discriminate against employees because they hold a religious belief, this does not give employees a free pass to manifest or express those beliefs.  Examples of this are Christian registrars dismissed for refusing to carry out civil partnership ceremonies. Another is Christian Counsellors refusing to give relationship counselling to homosexual couples.  In these cases, the Court of Appeal (and in the first example the European Court of Human Rights) has found that the individuals were not dismissed for holding a belief, but for the manner in which they manifested the belief and, therefore, were not discriminated against.

 

A case which, whilst not on all fours with Ms Higg’s position, but certainly shares similarities with it was Apelogun-Gabriels v London Borough of Lambeth ET/2301976/05 in which Mr Apelogun-Gabriels printed out extracts from the bible which were overtly hostile to homosexuals and distributed them to a work-based prayer group. In that case, the Employment Tribunal found that a non -Christian who distributed homophobic literature would also have been dismissed. Therefore, the dismissal was not discriminatory on the grounds of his religion.

 

Our view

In our view, the court system has to walk a fine line between protecting an individual’s right to hold a religious belief and protecting those to whom some religious beliefs do not look kindly and the current approach of not protecting the manifestation of those beliefs if it causes offence to others is the right one.  Our view is, that Ms Higgs is facing an uphill battle. She wishes to overturn the well-established very sensible approach to a very difficult issue and we think that she will lose.

To summarise, therefore, our view is that the Christian Legal Centre, claim that “this is all about the freedom of Christians to hold biblical views” fundamentally misses the point. Ms Higgs can, within limitations, believe what she wants; what she cannot do is manifest those beliefs in a discriminatory way.