Registrar who refused to register same-sex partnerships loses her appeal

In July 2008, a registrar who refused to register same-sex partnerships (under the UK’s Civil Partnership Act 2004) won her Employment Tribunal case against Islington Council who had taken disciplinary action against her.  The July tribunal agreed with Lillian Ladele that the council had unlawfully discriminated against her because of her religious beliefs.  But the Employment Appeal Tribunal has now overturned that decision, and said that the council had not discriminated against her: the reason for their disciplinary action was her conduct in refusing to register civil partnerships, not her religious beliefs.  It said,

In our judgment, the Tribunal has fallen into the trap of confusing the council’s reasons for treating the claimant as they did with her reasons for acting as she did [but]… these are not the same thing at all.  

As I understand it, the key point was that the council would have taken disciplinary action against any employee who refused to register civil partnerships – it would have made no difference whether the employee refused for religious reasons or not.  So the reason for the council’s action wasn’t Ms Ladele’s religious beliefs, it was that she failed to do something she was reasonably asked to do by her employer.  (You can read the full judgment in the pink news)

This decision is a relief for gay rights campaigners in the UK and has been welcomed by Stonewall.

4 thoughts on “Registrar who refused to register same-sex partnerships loses her appeal

  1. I like the verdict, but the reasoning troubles me. (1) “We’re firing X because he refused to work on Saturday. We’re not firing him for being an Orthodox Jews, as we’d fire anyone who refused to work on Saturday.” (2) “We’re firing Y because she got pregnant. We’re not firing her for being a woman– we’d fire a man who got pregnant too.” (I haven’t had time to read the article so perhaps there are nuances I’m missing?)

  2. Jender, you’re quite right, and what I didn’t make clear relates to the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination. The reasoning quoted in the post showed that the council’s action wasn’t *direct* discrimination, because Ms Ladele’s religious beliefs weren’t the reason for it, her conduct was. This was important in overturning the July tribunal’s findings, because they said she had been directly discriminated against.

    Your examples show that their action could still have been *indirect* discrimination, that is, where an apparently neutral policy or provision puts members of a particular group at a disadvantage.

    But in UK law, indirect discrimination can be justified if it’s a proportionate means to a legitimate end. Here, the council had the legitimate aim of providing its services in a non-discriminatory way, and the appeal tribunal said ‘it would bizarre if…[it] could not require its own employees to act likewise’.

    So it was relevant that what Ms Ladele wanted to do was discriminatory, to pick and choose what services she offered according to the sexual orientation of who was seeking them. In this context, it didn’t matter that Ms Ladele’s reasons for wanting to discriminate were religious reasons – the council would have stopped *any* registrar from discriminating, whatever their reasons.

    (In fact, Ms Ladele was offered alternative roles where she wouldn’t be faced with the dilemma, but she refused them.)

    Firing someone for refusing to work on a Saturday would need a very different sort of justification, although some employers – say, a small shop most of whose trade was on Saturday? – might be able to justify it. Even then they’d have to provide clear and specific evidence. (In the pregnancy case, justification would be irrelevant because it would be direct rather than indirect discrimination, which can’t be justified in UK law.)

  3. What are you laughing at? Any grafter can make money. What alternative occurred to you? It cost eight million dollars. My approval or disapproval would be irrelevant. I wouldnt have allowed it! It was almost a plea. The same brilliant vision of man as a rational being.

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