The Court of Appeal has ruled that a local authority did not abuse religious liberty when it dismissed a civil registrar for refusing to carry out civil partnership ceremonies. The Court declared this morning (15 December) that there was no evidence of discrimination against Lilian Ladele, who objects to homosexuality due to her interpretation of Christianity.
The ruling is likely to be welcomed by human rights campaigners, both Christian and non-Christian. However, Ladele's lawyers have announced that she will appeal to the Supreme Court, which recently replaced the law lords as the highest court in England and Wales.
Following the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005, Ladele said she could not officiate at them due to “religious conscience”.
The Christian Institute, who are supporting Ladele in her case, claim that she is a victim of anti-Christian discrimination by Islington Borough Council. But the court ruled today that, while the Council had treated Ladele unfairly "in some respects" relating to her dealings with them, she had "not been directly or indirectly discrimnated against".
The judges declared that only a "pedantically literal, unrealistic or acontextual interpretation" of comments made by the Council could lead to the conclusion that Ladele was treated differently because of her religion.
An employment tribunal in 2008 had upheld Ladele's claim of religious discrimination, but this was overturned by an appeal tribunal, causing Ladele to turn to the Court of Appeal, which produced today's judgment.
Ladele's barrister, James Dingemans QC, said that his client did not wish to undermine the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people, but that human rights law should also protect those with certain views about marriage. However, critics point out that civil registrars are not expected to make judgments about couples with whom they work.
The case has divided Christians, who have taken a range of views on the issue. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) has said that religion should be no excuse for homophobia. The Evangelical Alliance in Ireland recently urged Christians to support the introduction of civil partnerships on the grounds that Christians should uphold justice and equality.
In contrast, the Christian Institute expressed its disappointment with today's decision. Their spokesperson Mike Judge said that this was "an important case of religious liberty".
He insisted that "equality and diversity laws mean Christians are pushed to the back of the queue".
But the ruling was welcomed by Britain's leading civil liberties campaign, Liberty, as a "common sense judgment".
Corinna Ferguson, Liberty’s specialist on religious freedom, said, "Employers can’t be expected to promote equal treatment under the law if they must also accommodate discrimination on the part of their employees".
She added that the issue was very different from "cases in which people of faith have been punished for doing no harm" and repeated Liberty's support for Nadia Eweida, a BA employee banned from wearing a cross on a chain.
Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, said: "This case has been incorrectly cast by some as a 'conflict of rights'. The judgment makes clear that in the context of people providing public services or performing public functions, such as civil partnership ceremonies, their rights simply do not 'trump' those of service users. In fact, they have a duty to treat services users equally, with dignity and respect, as the public authority itself must.
"As the judgment made clear, in a modern liberal democracy, there can be no 'opt out' for those who say they are unable to do their jobs because they wish to discriminate, even when that desire to discriminate derives from a religious belief. This judgment is extremely welcome."