Tue 23 Mar 2021

Removal of lay magistrate for opposition to same sex adoption not religious discrimination

In Page v Lord Chancellor & Another and Page v NHS Trust Development Authority the Court of Appeal has again considered the conflict between the right of an individual to freedom of religion on the one hand, and laws protecting against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation on the other. 

The two cases were both brought by Mr Page, a lay magistrate who sat on family cases involving adoption applications and who was also a non-executive director ("NED") of an NHS Trust. They arose from the same circumstances and were heard consecutively by the Court with separate judgments being issued. 

In his role as a magistrate, Mr Page had refused to approve a same sex adoption application.  He expressed a view, based on his religious beliefs, that it was "not normal" for a child to be adopted by single parents or same-sex couples.  Following this incident Mr Page was reprimanded by the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor and required to attend training.  Mr Page subsequently repeated these views to the press.  Following further disciplinary proceedings he was removed as a lay magistrate.  The NHS Trust also took disciplinary action after Mr Page reiterated these views in several media interviews, including an appearance on BBC Breakfast News. The NHS Trust decided not to renew Mr Page's term of office as a NED.  

Mr Page then raised separate claims against the Lord Chancellor and the NHS Trust in the employment tribunal.  The claims included allegations of discrimination and harassment on the grounds of religious belief, victimisation, breach of his right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion and freedom of expression (Articles 9 and 10) of the European Convention of Human Rights.  The victimisation claim was based on an argument that the reason for his removal was Mr Page's assertion in media interviews that the initial reprimand he was given was discrimination on the grounds of his religious beliefs (that same sex adoption was wrong).  The Lord Chancellor argued the reason for removal was not the complaint of discrimination but the fact that Mr Page had made it clear that his bias against same sex couples would affect how he dealt with adoption applications.  Similar arguments were made by the NHS Trust.

The claims were unsuccessful in both the employment tribunal and the employment appeal tribunal.  When the claims reached the Court of Appeal it upheld the decision of the lower tribunals.  The basis on which Mr Page's appointments were terminated were entirely lawful and did not involve any breach of his human rights.  When it was argued for Mr Page that, if the tribunal decision was to stand, it would make it impossible for a Christian, or others who hold what was termed as "traditional views" on sexual orientation, to hold any kind of public office the Court disagreed.  The issue in the case was not about what beliefs a person holds, but the limits of their public expression.

Although the positions held by Mr Page were unusual - one being a public appointment as a magistrate and the other carrying out a function for a public service (the NHS) - the conflict between the protected characteristic of religion or belief and sexual orientation is one that can arise in any workplace.  It is a particularly difficult balance for an employer to strike with the possibility of claims from both sides should they get it wrong.  Current case law suggests that, while employers need to avoid discriminating on the grounds of religion and belief, the extent to which they need to tolerate an employee expressing a negative view of homosexuality is limited.  A policy that differentiates between holding religious beliefs and strong expressions of those beliefs that amount to harassment may be of assistance, but would need to be applied proportionately and equally to all religious groups.

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