Religion or belief dismissal – fair because of marriage?
Can a teacher be discriminated against on the grounds of her religion or belief for failing to leave her husband following his criminal conviction?
This was considered by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Pendleton v Derbyshire County Council and The Governing Body of Glebe Junior School.
Summary of indirect discrimination legislation
The Equality Act 2010 provides that where:
- an employer applies to the employee a provision, criterion, or practice (PCP), and
- that employee has a particular religion or belief (or lack of religion or belief), and
- the employer applies, or would apply, that PCP to persons not of the same religion or belief as the employee, and
- the PCP puts or would put persons of the employee’s religion or belief (or lack of religion or belief) at a particular disadvantage when compared to other person,
this would amount to indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.
The employer can justify the application of the PCP by showing it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
The claimant, Mrs P, was a teacher, employed by Glebe Junior School. She was married to a head teacher of a nearby junior school that was part of the same cluster group as Glebe Junior School. This meant that there was a degree of collaboration of working together between the two schools.
In January 2003, Mr P was arrested and subsequently convicted on suspicion of downloading indecent images of children and voyeurism.
As a result of this, the claimant was suspended from her employment with Glebe Junior School. She was advised that it would be inappropriate for her to return to work if she continued to support her husband. She was also advised that if she decided to leave her husband, then she would be supported by the school.
The claimant continued to support her husband. Following a disciplinary hearing, the claimant was dismissed on the grounds of a breakdown of trust and confidence. In summary, she was dismissed because she had chosen to maintain a relationship with her husband, which led her employer to believe that her suitability to carry out the safeguarding responsibilities of her role had been compromised.
The claimant brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal on the grounds of indirect discrimination based on her religious belief. The Employment Tribunal dismissed her claim.
The claimant then appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). She argued that making her choose between her marriage vows and her career was sufficient to show that she was put at a disadvantage, particularly where she may have been required to act contrary to her religious beliefs.
The EAT held that the claimant was subject to indirect discrimination on the grounds of her religion or belief. The question for the Tribunal was to ask whether being forced to chose between her career or her marriage placed her at a disadvantage which it held it did.
It was open to the employer in this case to adduce evidence to demonstrate that the dismissal was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, and the employer could have successfully argued that point. However, it did not raise such evidence.
This case is a useful reminder that, where claims for indirect discrimination are being brought, the employer can rely on the business justification defence.
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