Religious Beliefs In The Workplace
An employer decides that a devout Christian employee (VW) overstepped professional boundaries when she invited a Muslim junior to church events, prayed for her and laid hands on her during a 1:1 meeting, gave her a book promoting conversion to Christianity, and told her that she needed to let Jesus into her life. It issues VW with a written warning and recommends she underwent training. VW claims this was direct religious discrimination and harassment, especially given the oppressive nature of the sanction. The Employment Tribunal rejects VW’s claims. What did the Employment Appeal Tribunal decide when VW appealed?
The appeal in Wasteney v East London NHS Foundation Trust was dismissed. One reason for the EAT’s decision to uphold the earlier ruling was that the employer’s decision was ultimately nothing to do with manifesting a belief (by reference to the language of Article 9* of the European Convention on Human Rights), and everything to do with improperly pressurising a colleague who did not consent to a campaign tantamount to grooming. This led in turn to a clear finding that “sharing her faith with a consenting colleague”, as VW put it, was a wholly inaccurate description of what actually took place. The colleague in question made serious complaints against VW in relation to unwanted and unwelcome conduct.
What does this decision tell us? Some might think that it only stated the obvious, and that the only surprise is that it took up so much tribunal time. But there is an important point here about the handling of claims based upon ECHR Articles. On this occasion, there was evidently no need to look to the ECHR’s carefully worded limitation on the freedom to manifest. By reference to the factual background – which may be a major relief for employers – the clear practical message could be summarised as “It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it. And where you say it.”
*1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. The freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.