Religious discrimination

Religious discrimination: Christian teacher’s dismissal for refusal to divorce sex offender

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has held that a Christian employee, dismissed for not divorcing her husband when he was convicted of sex offences, was subjected to indirect religious discrimination.

In Pendleton v Derbyshire County Council and another, the EAT held that the dismissal of a Christian employee because of her refusal to end her marriage with a convicted sex offender was indirect religious discrimination.

Christian belief in sanctity of marriage: EAT’s view

“The tensions that she suffered given the difficulties arising from her belief and the election forced upon her…inevitably mean that there would be a particular (collective) disadvantage for others holding the same belief…

“I do not suggest that any less respect should be given for those who are in a loving and committed relationship (whether married or not) but who do not share the same view as the claimant as to the sanctity of marriage vows; I am simply recognising that… those sharing the claimant’s belief would suffer a particular disadvantage given the crisis of conscience they would face.”

Mrs Pendleton, a Christian, was a teacher. Her husband, a teacher at another school, was convicted of making indecent images of children and sentenced to 10 months in prison.

It was accepted that Mrs Pendleton had no prior knowledge of, or involvement in, her husband’s behaviour.

Mrs Pendleton chose to stay with her husband. Her decision was based on her Christian belief in the sanctity of her marriage vows. She maintained that she had done nothing wrong, was a separate person to her husband, had an exemplary track record in safeguarding and did not present a risk.

The school at which she worked summarily dismissed her on the basis that she had “chosen to maintain a relationship with [her] partner who has been convicted of making indecent images of children”.

The disciplinary panel stated that her decision had cast doubt on her suitability to carry out safeguarding responsibilities and choices in her personal life contravened the school’s ethos. Mrs Pendleton won her subsequent unfair dismissal claim, but her indirect religious discrimination claim failed at first instance, but was upheld on appeal.

The EAT concluded that those with a religious belief in the sanctity of marriage face a particular disadvantage when they are asked by their employer to divorce their partner.

It held that the school’s stance could not be justified. While ensuring the safety of children is a legitimate aim, the decision to dismiss Mrs Pendleton was not a proportionate means of achieving the aim. The school had not considered alternatives to dismissal. The tribunal set aside the original tribunal decision on discrimination, and substituted a finding of indirect religious discrimination.

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