Clash between religious beliefs and LGBT+ rights

Could an employer safely discipline and dismiss an employee for giving a sermon about Christianity and LGBT+ rights?

Protected characteristics – Religious and philosophical beliefs

One of the most challenging issues for employers (and employment lawyers) to get to grips with is the “clash” of differing protected characteristics.

At our recent webinar on Employer Challenges in 2023 we spoke about a number of cases dealing with the clash of rights between those holding gender critical beliefs (generally, protected as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act) and transgender persons. 

Similar issues have arisen in the past where there has been a clash between religious beliefs (protected under the Equality Act) and the rights of members of the LGBT+ community.  Cases have included a Christian relationship counsellor being unwilling to counsel those in same-sex relationships and a Christian registrar refusing to register same-sex civil partnerships.  

While every case will depend on its own facts, the authorities draw an important distinction between the holding of religious or philosophical beliefs (which will be protected, and the employee in question cannot be subject to discrimination for these beliefs) and the actions the employee takes based on these beliefs, which may not be protected, particularly if these actions impact on the rights and dignity of others.

In other words, it would be unlawful to discipline a Christian registrar for holding religious views that, for example, homosexuality is sinful, but it may well be lawful to discipline that employee for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for same sex relationships (and the Claimant’s claim of discrimination in these circumstances in Ladele v London Borough of Islington failed).

How will Employment Tribunals deal with cases involving religious beliefs?

A recent employment tribunal decision provides another example of how ETs may deal with these complex cases.  In Randall v Trent College Ltd the Claimant was dismissed (then reinstated, then made redundant some time later) from his role as school chaplain at a Christian school, due to negative comments about LGBT+ rights he made during a sermon in the school chapel.    

Some years earlier, he had given sermons addressing the traditional Christian view of same sex marriage, which upset staff, pupils and parents.  It was made clear to the Claimant at that time that a sermon is not the appropriate forum for such matters and he must not give sermons about LGBT issues in future, as to do so risked causing psychological harm to vulnerable pupils.

By 2019, the school had adopted an “Educate and Celebrate” programme, aimed at “tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and ingrained attitudes in schools”. The Claimant opposed this programme.

He gave a sermon which caused considerable upset, stating that pupils don’t need to “accept” the ideas and ideology of “LGBT activists” and suggesting that some activists’ tactics were akin to totalitarianism and dictatorships.  The employment tribunal noted that pupils heard the “fundamental message” that it was wrong to be LGBT+ and that religious belief allows them to discriminate. 

The Claimant was disciplined and dismissed.  The Claimant raised claims for religious discrimination.  His claims failed.  The tribunal concluded he was not disciplined because of his religious beliefs, but for separate matters – the objectionable way he manifested his beliefs. 

The tribunal found that he was well aware that he should not give such sermons and that there was a risk of causing psychological harm.  He had been told not to give such sermons.  He had showed no insight and was wholly unrepentant.  

The tribunal found the sermon to be “entirely self serving”, not in the interests of pupils, and designed to persuade pupils to his way of thinking.  He had acted contrary to his safeguarding duties and the school’s statutory obligations.  To discipline and dismiss the Claimant did not, therefore, amount to unlawful discrimination, despite the employee’s religious beliefs being protected under the Act.    

The moral of the story?

These are difficult cases – the hearing here was very lengthy, with 13 witnesses.  Employers need to tread extremely carefully in meeting their obligations under the Equality Act to those who have protected religious and philosophical beliefs, as well as to those who are LGBT+. 

Significant risk areas arise where these protected characteristics clash, and expert advice is recommended.

If you have any questions in this regard, speak to a member of BTO’s employment law team.

This update contains general information only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice.

Douglas Strang, Senior Associate: / 0141 221 8012 / Connect with Douglas on LinkedIn