In McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd the Court of Appeal (CA) has refused Mr McFarlane permission to appeal against his dismissal and has rejected the claims of direct and indirect religious discrimination brought by him against Relate for his dismissal for refusing to counsel same-sex couples.
We have reported previously on the case of Ladele v London Borough of Islington dealing with claims of religious discrimination. Both these cases deal with the clash of competing rights set out in our equality laws. The CA in this case took the view that if it granted Mr McFarlane leave to appeal it “would necessarily undermine Relate’s proper and legitimate policy” as provided by its Equal Opportunities policy and its Professional Ethics policy which both prescribed non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
The CA also commented on evidence submitted by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, in support Mr McFarlane’s appeal:
• It dismissed Lord Carey’s proposal that cases like these should be heard by specialist judges who were more sensitive to religious issues;
• It reiterated the point that Mr McFarlane was dismissed because of his conduct, i.e. his refusal to counsel same-sex couples where sexual issues arose, and not because he held the religious belief which had led him to that particular conduct;
• It challenged Lord Carey’s suggestion that by holding Mr McFarlane’s Christian beliefs to be discriminatory, the Court was equating such beliefs to those of a bigot. The point was made that the principle of indirect discrimination is focused not on the belief or motive of the person’s actions but on the actions and outcome themselves.
• The Court was clear that no one belief can have a higher claim for protection that any other belief irrespective of its length of tradition or its richness of culture.
The case shows consistency of approach with the earlier case of Ladele v London Borough of Islington and provides further and useful guidance to employers.