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Ladele v Islington and “religitigation”

I must record that Lillian Ladele has lost her appeal in the religious discrimination case she brought against her employer, Islington Council, some time ago. She’s the registrar who, having been designated a civil partnerships registrar, refused to carry out civil partnership ceremonies because her Christian beliefs were opposed to them. She claimed Islington had discriminated against her on the grounds of her religion. Initially, she won at the Employment Tribunal; the Tribunal took leave of its senses and decided there was direct discrimination against her, even though requiring registrars to carry out CPs was clearly a religiously neutral practice (in the sense that non-Christians were required to do it just as Christians were), so it was plainly a case of indirect discrimination. That obvious error mattered a great deal, because an employer cannot justify direct discrimination: Islington’s reasons for its policy were, in the ET’s view, irrelevant.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal put matters straight, and I was right to say she had no chance on any further appeal, as the Court of Appeal has now shown. In fact the position of evangelical Christian registrars is worse as a result of this further appeal, since the Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger has made clear he thinks councils must now under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 legally require anyone they have designated as a civil partnership registrar to conduct CPs. That was a point that the EAT had found it unnecessary to decide. If there are any other designated CP registrars who’ve until now been accommodated by their employers in their religious objections, they have Ms. Ladele and her supporters at the Christian Institute to thank for the fact that that will now, in all probability, change. Any Christian registrars who have not yet been so designated should focus on persuading their employer not to designate them, if they want any latitude to remain. Lord Neuberger says (para. 75) that decisions not to designate them “may well be lawful”.

Finally, I’m not the only person to have noticed a sharp increase in the numbers of legal cases involving complaints by religious people that their rights have been infringed because their beliefs have been insufficiently respected – the recent acquittal of Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, who were charged with using threatening, abusive or insulting words which were religiously aggravated against a Muslim convert, is another example. It may be worth mentioning that the Vogelenzangs were also supported by the Christian Institute.

To be fair, I like many others have sympathy for the Vogelenzangs and am glad they were acquitted. They were the victims of what I’m tempted to call the religitigation culture, and their case shows that religious believers themselves can be the victims of it just as much as anyone else.

But I’m concerned about religitigation and the role of activists like the Christian Institute in promoting it. I think it risks harming relations between religious believers and wider society, promoting the quasi-separatism some extreme believers may want at the expense of the pluralism I think the majority of believers and non-believers would prefer, and making a legal minefield of those common sense give-and-take compromises even admittedly secularist atheists like me might otherwise be inclined to make. The practical result of Ladele v Islington for others in her position I think proves my point.

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  1. I disagree with the Christian Institute and everything that they stand for but I do think that what they are doing is, unfortunately, necessary. It was once the case that the equality commissions would use tactical litigation to clarify and expand the law but the EHRC under Trevor Phillips appear much more reluctant to take this approach. With the increasing complexity of employment law, with many directives implemented incorrectly, and most employees not being in the position to take cases to the Court of Appeal, it is increasingly likely that campaigning groups and charities will soon become the only way of ensuring that access to justice is preserved.
    .-= James Medhurst´s last blog ..Compromise agreements =-.

  2. Maybe I am alone in having some sympathy for people in Lillian Ledele’s situation. She was employed as a Registrar from November 2002. She had informed Islington of her wish, on religious grounds, not to perform civil partnership ceremonies. The 2004 Act was passed and Islington, in my view with some considerable insensitivity, made all their registrars into civil partnership registrars. Others complained that Ladele was not doing her “fair share” of these ceremonies. With a more common sense approach all this could surely have been avoided and some respect paid to Ladele’s viewpoint.

  3. Maybe!

    No, seriously, I have a little sympathy, in that she was a registrar before civil partnerships came in. And I suppose someone might – might reasonably argue that Islington should have considered not designating her. but ultimately I don’t really see why they shouldn’t have done so. Some of the people there seem to have over-reacted to her, saying she was “victimising” them and treating a letter of hers as “gross misconduct”, when it’s far from clear either of those accusations was fair. But my sympathy goes no further than that, to be honest.

    She was a public servant, and should have carried out her duties. A Christian who works for the Borders Agency can’t say they won’t refuse people entry to the UK or try to remove failed asylum seekers because Jesus wouldn’t do that. The only answer, to resolve their crisis of conscience, is for them to resign. A Pensions Agency worker who’s a Christian can’t say they’ll refuse to make pensions calculations involving gay couples. If they don’t like it, they should resign. Public servants should serve the public equally according to the law, I think – and so, perfectly reasonably, did Islington.

    And let’s look at her principled objections. Did she object equally to marrying divorcees? I haven’t heard that she did. Why not? How come she was comfortable with the idea of civil marriage anyway? Isn’t it a Christian sacrament? She says marriage should be for straight couples only – but civil partnership is not marriage (a concession specifically made to accommodate Christians), you don’t have to be gay to enter into one, and you don’t have to have gay sex of any kind in one, let alone anal sex.

    So I’ve never been all that impressed with her religious objections to performing CPs, to be frank. To consider her attitude discriminatory, and to refuse to make allowances for it, seems to me reasonable for a public authority obliged to provide its services to all without discrimination. She needed to resign, not expect the whole world to fit around her beliefs.

  4. You make some fair points. However, it is interesting that the law permits medical personnel to opt out of certain procedures such as abortion. Discussed here:

    http://www.bma.org.uk/employmentandcontracts/equality_diversity/religion_belief/PersonalBeliefs.jsp

    I still maintain that a more reasonable approach by Islington could have enabled Ladele to be accommodated and all this litigation avoided (good though it is for some lawyers)! At root it is about how change to law and practice ought to be managed.

    I do agree that the case may have made matters worse for those who have, so far, been allowed to opt out. They may now be required to either swallow their principles or, as you say, resign.

  5. Yes… I think it’s a bit much to compare abortion, or withdrawal of treatment, to homosexuality, though.

    And okay, so wider society agrees to make concessions across the board on major matters of conscience, by means of Parliamentary decisions or accepting professional conduct codes made by a profession as a whole. I have no problem with that. It doesn’t follow from that that employers should concede to each individual demand made by every worker on much more minor matters.

    I don’t say secularism must be rigid, inflexible and absolute – but if religious people want to force me to choose between an absolute secularism in which no allowance is made for religion at all, and a free for all allowing them to discriminate at will on grounds like sex and sexuality, justifying that by reference to belief, and being free from the legal and disciplinary consequences I’d suffer for the same discrimination… then absolute secularism it should be.

    I think religious people need to decide whether or not they want to meet people like me halfway and rub along, or whether they want to wage an attritional campaign of religitigation (sorry, I just love using that word now) that could end in results most of them really don’t want.

  6. I was not comparing abortion, or withdrawal of treatment, to homosexuality. (In any event, as you yourself have pointed out, civil partnership is not necessarily about homosexuality]. I was merely indicating that, sometimes, for good reason, the law is prepared to make exceptions. However, I would certainly not claim that this was anything more than a weak argument against your position on this subject. No exception was made here so that left it to individual authorities to implement the law. Islington did it their way. I merely argue that a more sypathetic way was possible and was adopted by some authorities.

    As far as the law goes, I would think that the Court of Appeal’s decision is undoubtedly right and I agree with you on the point that Ladele’s case may have made matters worse for any registrars who have been permitted to opt out. Litigation can have such, perhaps unintended, consequences.

    Do you think a further appeal either possible or likely?

  7. Eric, thank you for your comment.If a Muslim wroekd in a restaurant, and that restaurant decided to serve bar-b-que pork, would you require the Muslim to prepare, cook and serve the pork something his religion forbids? No, another employee would be asked to do that and the Muslim would not be fired for not doing his job.Ms. Ladele was being required to do something she knows is evil and abomination to the Lord. But, unlike a Muslim, she is not allowed to live according to her religious convictions.To fire the Muslim would have resulted in a storm of protests that the restaurant was not being tolerant of his religious beliefs. But for a Christian there is no such tolerance.By the way. Muslims very strongly oppose homosexuality more so than Christians. Muslim Sharia law calls for the death penalty for sodomy and this law has been enforced. If she were a Muslim she would have had to respond in the same way as Ms. Ladele and refused to have conducted the civil union. Would she have then been fired in those circumstances? No, allowances would have been made for her religious convictions.

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