In Ladele v London Borough of Islington and another, the Court of Appeal has ruled that a local authority did not unlawfully discriminate against an orthodox Christian registrar on grounds of her evangelical beliefs by requiring her to officiate at same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The case highlights the contentious issue of individuals’ rights in connection with religious belief conflicting with the other protected rights.
Lillian Ladele, a registrar at Islington Council in London, was found guilty of gross misconduct when she continued to refuse to participate in civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex couples. She had been warned that her stance conflicted with Islington’s equality and diversity policy and that disciplinary action would be taken against her if she persisted.
An employment tribunal found that Ms Ladele had suffered unlawful direct and indirect discrimination under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. The Employment Appeal Tribunal allowed the Council’s appeal against each of these findings and the Court of Appeal has now upheld its approach.
Whilst the Court had some sympathy for the claimant and agreed that she had been treated unfairly in some respects, it considered that only on a ‘pedantically literal’ interpretation of some of the Council’s comments could it be inferred that she had been treated less favourably because of her religion. The reason for her treatment was not her religious belief but rather her conduct in refusing to carry out a legitimate duty. Any employee similarly refusing would have been treated in the same way, so there was no direct discrimination.
In relation to indirect discrimination, the Court held that the Council had a legitimate aim in seeking to provide non-discriminatory services with regard to civil partnerships and promoting equal opportunities. The requirement for registrars to carry out the full range of civil partnership duties was a proportionate means of achieving the aim and was therefore justified.
In broad terms, this judgment confirms that employers are expected to promote equal treatment in the services they provide and they cannot be expected to do so if they are required to accommodate discrimination on the part of their staff.
We understand that Ms Ladele will be seeking to challenge the Court of Appeal’s ruling. However, permission to appeal to the Supreme Court (the UK’s highest court – formerly the House of Lords) has so far been refused.