Christian charity found to have discriminated on grounds of religion

By staff writers
16 May 2008

An Employment Tribunal in Abergele has today unanimously found in favour of a former employee of a Christian charity who was claiming constructive dismissal and discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.

The Tribunal heard that Prospects, a Christian charity which receives public money for its work with people with learning disabilities, and which had previously employed a number of non-Christian staff and volunteers – including a number who were transferred to them under TUPE Regulations – acted illegally when in 2004 it began recruiting only practising Christians for almost all posts, and told existing non-Christian staff that they were no longer eligible for promotion.

Mr James Boddy, Barrister from 11 King’s Bench Walk Chambers, representing the claimant Mr Mark Sheridan, declared: "This is an important decision because it is the first time an employment tribunal has been called on to decide the extent to which an organisation with a religious ethos is allowed to discriminate on grounds of religion or belief."

Mr Mark Sheridan, the claimant, aged 56, of Conwy, North Wales, said" "I am really very pleased with this result. When I worked for Prospects I felt that what they were doing was wrong. Winning this case now, justifies my claim."

Mr Sheridan's legal costs were paid by the British Humanist Association (BHA). The organisation's chief executive, Hanne Stinson, who has herself worked in the equalities field, commented: "[This] has proved to be a landmark case in the area of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. The Tribunal’s decision will undoubtedly have far-reaching repercussions for religious employers, as faith-based organisations will have to be much more stringent when they wish to ... attach a ‘Genuine Occupational Requirement’ to their jobs. A clear message has been sent out by this decision: that blanket discrimination in employment policies and practices on grounds of religion or belief is simply unacceptable, and that an instruction to discriminate against someone on the basis of that person’s religion or belief will be unlawful."

She continued: "The Tribunal’s decision confirms many of the concerns about contracting out public services to religious organisations that we set out in our recently published report on the subject, including the concern that since the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 came in, which has exemptions for religious organisations allowing them to discriminate, religious organisations are actually discriminating more in their employment practices than before the law was enacted and that this can actually damage the quality of services provided."

Ms Stinson added: "The Tribunal’s judgment makes clear that a court will make an objective assessment of what a ‘religious ethos’ is, and states that it is not for the religious organisation itself to define its ethos, where this does not accord with reality on the ground. Hopefully the Government, which is considering contracting out large parts of the welfare state to religious organisations, will reconsider its policy in light of the Tribunal’s judgment."

Mr Sheridan, a Christian, thanked the BHA for its support. He resigned when he had to tell non-Christian staff they were not eligible for promotion. Another non-religious former staff member has been taking a case against Prospects, backed by the trade union Unison.

In his witness statement, Mr Sheridan claimed that his management job became increasingly difficult as the policy was implemented, and that being forced to work within such a restrictive employment regime was highly detrimental to his mental and physical health.

Simon Barrow, from the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, said: "This judgement ought to make religious charities sit up and think - not just about their legal responsibilities and the morality of non-discrimination, but about the impact of their behaviour on their image with the public at large."

He continued: "Leaders and entrepreneurs in many faith organisations seem reluctant to embrace a comprehensive equalities agenda, or to recognise their culpability in issues of discrimination. Yet they are often the first to seek exemptions from legislation accepted by others and to complain that they are being 'attacked' when criticisms are raised."

"The Christian message of love and justice is undermined by poor employment and equalities practices in the Christian organisations. This is an opportunity for the churches to get their house in order."

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