Can an employee be fairly dismissed for the way they express their beliefs, rather than the beliefs themselves?
Employers must not discriminate against workers on the grounds of their religion or religious beliefs. In Page v NHS Trust Development Authority, the Court of Appeal has looked at whether an employee can be fairly dismissed for the way he expressed his beliefs, rather than the beliefs themselves.
Mr Page was a non-executive director of an NHS Trust. He also sat as a magistrate on a panel to consider the adoption of a child by a same-sex couple. He told his fellow magistrates that children should be brought up by a mother and father and that it was ‘not normal’ for children to be adopted by a single parent or same-sex couple. His colleagues complained and he was disciplined. He then spoke to the press, saying his views stemmed from his Christian beliefs. After they heard about the press coverage, the NHS Trust told him to stop talking to the press. Mr Page ignored this instruction and continued to give high profile interviews, including on primetime TV. He was removed as a magistrate and was suspended by the Trust. His position as a non-executive director was not renewed due to his behaviour. He brought a religious discrimination claim against the Trust.
The employment tribunal dismissed his claims. He was not dismissed because of his religious beliefs or his expression of it. He was dismissed because he continued speaking to the press despite being asked to stop. The EAT and the Court of Appeal dismissed his appeals. The Court of Appeal said that the Trust’s actions were not because of Mr Page’s religion or views on homosexuality but because he had expressed those views to the media without permission. The employee’s expression of his views about homosexuality risked hindering the Trust’s ability to perform its key functions by alienating homosexual people with mental health issues. His views went beyond those relating to same sex adoption and into opinion on homosexual activity which was more likely to cause offence. In relation to direct discrimination, the Court said he had not been dismissed because of his Christian beliefs but because he expressed his views about the ‘traditional family’ and homosexuality in the national media. The Court made it clear that Christians with traditional views could still hold public office, but there would be limits on how those views could be publicly expressed.
This case continues to highlight the tension that can arise between religion and sexual orientation in discrimination claims. In this case, the issue wasn’t the employee’s beliefs, rather his senior position within the Trust and the effect that the expression of his views, against the Trust’s instructions, could have on service users. Each case will turn on its own unique facts. Employers must conduct a delicate balancing act between the competing rights and freedoms of employees and the legitimate interests of the business.