When can religious organisations discriminate?

An Employment Tribunal in Abergele should help provide the answer. The extent to which religious organisations can rely on ‘Genuine Occupational Requirements’ to justify religious discrimination has not so far been tested. Today an Employment Tribunal in Abergele will start doing just that, and the British Humanist Association thinks the case is so important that it is paying for one of the claimants to have legal representation.

The Tribunal will hear that Prospects, a Christian charity which receives public money for its work with people with learning disabilities, employed a number of non-Christian staff and volunteers, including a number who were transferred to them under TUPE Regulations, and that this arrangement had worked successfully. But, in 2004, Prospects began recruiting only practising Christians for almost all posts, and told existing non-Christian staff that they were no longer eligible for promotion.

The claimant that the BHA is supporting is a practising Christian and had been employed by Prospects for a number of years before the new policy was introduced. He found that his management job became increasingly difficult as the policy was implemented, and eventually resigned. In addition to hearing a claim of constructive dismissal and discrimination, the Tribunal will be told that being forced to work within such a restrictive discriminatory employment policy was highly detrimental to the claimant’s mental and physical health.

Hanne Stinson , BHA Chief Executive, said, ‘We are pleased to be involved in what is potentially a landmark case in the area of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. The extent to which religious organisations are able to attach ‘Genuine Occupational Requirements’, as laid down in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, to their jobs has not so far been tested. This is why this case is so important. We believe that since that law came in, some religious organisations are actually discriminating more in their employment practices, and this case appears to confirm that.’

Ms Stinson continued, ‘The exemptions in the equality legislation are there to allow for discrimination for very specific positions – clearly a Cardinal needs to be a Catholic. But we do not believe that the law was intended to allow religious (or indeed humanist) organisations to discriminate wholesale in their employment policies and practices. We believe that this kind of blanket discrimination is both unacceptable and, as the Tribunal will hear, puts the quality of services at real risk. As this charity discovered, religious organisations that recruit from a restricted pool of candidates ( in this case practising Christians), will find it difficult to employ appropriately qualified and experienced staff.’

‘The BHA has just published ‘Quality and Equality’ – a report that explores the risk of discrimination in employment by religious organisations who deliver public services, and argues that public service reforms that result in large parts of the welfare state being contracted out to religious organisations could affect tens of thousands of employees. We think this important discrimination case proves the point.’

The employment tribunal is being heard in Abergele and is set to last 8 days.

The second claimant, who was denied promotion on grounds of her non-religious beliefs, is being represented by her Union .