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.