Workplace Guides: Religion and Sexual Orientation

Summary | Not a new issue | Where to draw the line 
How to prevent and respond to incidents | Top ten steps


Case Studies: Responding to Issues

This section covers case studies in the following organisations:

Organisation: Local Council

What was the issue? A registrar said she was unable to conduct civil partnerships because same-sex unions were against her religion and beliefs. The registrar requested that adjustments should be made to enable her to continue with her work and not conduct civil partnerships. The council compromised and said she could be exempt from conducting civil partnership ceremonies, but could not be excused from performing all civil partnerships. The registrar declined this compromise. The registrar claimed that she was being treated differently from other staff on the grounds of her religion and belief.

What happened? The council followed their internal grievance processes and the registrar took a case to employment tribunal because she felt she had experienced religious discrimination. The original tribunal agreed that the registrar should be exempt from performing civil partnerships, and the council had acted inappropriately. The council then appealed and the ruling was overturned. The appeal tribunal found that the council had not discriminated against the registrar by asking her to conduct civil partnerships. The tribunal stated ‘It cannot constitute direct discrimination to treat all employees in precisely the same way.’ The appeal judgement also stated: ‘If I burn down my employer’s factory because of my philosophical anarchist beliefs, an employer who dismisses me thereafter for burning down the factory is not doing so because of my philosophical beliefs. Those beliefs may be the reason for my action, but they are not the reason for the employers’ response.’

Could anything have gone better? Both the initial tribunal and the appeal tribunal found that the council had not handled the case as well as they might have done. Although this did not constitute discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, the appeal tribunal found ‘There were clearly some unsatisfactory features about the way the council handled this matter. The claimant’s beliefs were strong and genuine and not all of management treated them with the sensitivity which they might have done.’

 

What was the issue? The council launched their lesbian, gay and bisexual staff group and booked a venue that was associated with the local Catholic church. Someone complained to the bishop about their use of the building, and the group was asked to leave the venue.

What did they do? All council services and chief executives were made aware of what had happened and it was agreed that as a local authority they would no longer use any of the venues provided by the Catholic church in the area. This had a significant financial impact on the church. The council also informed their local partners, including the Primary Care Trust, why they were no longer using those venues.

Why were they able to do it? The council had clear policies in place, agreed by all in the council, that they would not accept services from organisations that discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.
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Organisation: National Counselling Service

What was the issue? An employee of a national counselling service was being trained to provide, amongst other things, psychosexual therapy to couples. The employee stated that he felt concerned about providing therapy to same-sex couples because this was against his religious belief. The counselling service instigated internal grievance procedures and dismissed him on the grounds of gross misconduct. The employee claimed he had been discriminated against on the grounds of his religion and belief and therefore took a case to tribunal.

What happened? The tribunal found that the service were within their rights to insist that the employee serve all clients regardless of race, disability, sexual orientation, religion and belief and age. The tribunal found that the employee had been treated with dignity and his religious views respected and therefore had not experienced discrimination on the grounds of his religion. The service said: ‘We recognise the importance of people’s religious beliefs to them and we are committed to supporting all religions working within our organisation. However, our primary responsibility is to our clients who often need complex advice and assistance. We cannot allow anything to damage our clients or to undermine the principle of trust that underpins our work.’

What could have gone better? The tribunal found, and the service accepted, that the employee should have been given notice to leave instead of dismissing him on the grounds of gross misconduct and therefore accepted his claim of wrongful dismissal on this narrow ground.
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Organisation: Local Authority

What was the issue? A member of staff, citing his faith, refused to work with a gay member of staff. Comments were being made directly to the member of staff about how he would be executed in other countries for being gay and that his sexual orientation was against religion. The remarks were having a significant impact on working relations and the morale of the gay member of staff.

What did they do? The member of staff who was being discriminatory was told that he had signed an equal opportunities policy that included sexual  orientation, and he was in breach of that policy. He was therefore issued with a formal warning about his behaviour. The council then brought in mediators to work with the gay member of staff and the person who was expressing their belief in the workplace. They did not want to move either member of staff but wanted to deal with the culture within the team. The staff member who was being discriminatory was given training on workplace behaviour detailing what the council expected from their staff and what were the core values of the organisation. The council also provided support for the gay member of staff to help them feel more confident and able to challenge incidents if they occurred, and followed up to ensure the situation had improved. The gay member of staff did  not want the member of staff to be removed; he just wanted to be treated with respect. The two now have a good working relationship.

How were they able to do it? The council had very clear, established policies covering all seven areas of equality and all members of staff had to abide by those policies. When this situation arose, the council were therefore able to be very clear that his behaviour was in breach of his terms and conditions. They were able to explain that whilst holding personal beliefs was perfectly valid, that should not impact on the way he works with other members of staff.

Could anything have gone better? The gay member of staff had been experiencing discrimination for quite a while because he didn’t realise that he could come forward and make a complaint about what was being said to him. He did not think that the expression of a religious belief could be against the equal opportunities policy. The council realised that they needed to do more to tell staff exactly what constitutes discrimination.

 

What was the issue? The authority was hosting an event for the lesbian, gay and bisexual community. They ordered promotional materials from their usual supplier. The supplier refused to produce the materials on the grounds that they objected to the message targeted at lesbian, gay and bisexual people because it was against their religion.

What did they do? The council made the decision, in line with their policies, that the entire council contract with that company would be withdrawn and no further business would be given to the supplier.

Why were they able to do it? Mindful of the imminent law changes making it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation, the department that orders supplies already had a policy in place that they would not give work to suppliers who did not abide by the council’s policies on equality and diversity. As soon as the supplier refused the contract for the lesbian and gay event, the department immediately removed the company from the list of suppliers.
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Organisation: Large Public Sector Service Provider

What was the issue? A senior member of staff was constantly quoting passages of the Bible to a junior gay member of staff. The gay man felt uncomfortable that this man had influence over his career, and felt his references to the Bible would make other staff feel hostile towards him as a gay man.

What did they do? The organisation first tried to resolve the situation informally but the member of staff citing the Bible felt this was a legitimate expression of his religion and belief and did not understand that this was affecting the gay member of staff. It was therefore necessary to resolve the problem using formal processes. Reports were made against the man citing the Bible and the case was judged by internal human resource staff. They made the decision that the member of staff should stop citing the Bible. Both members of staff were represented by their trade union. It was made clear that there was no problem with the member of staff being a Christian, but his personal belief could not be used to undermine another member of staff’s dignity. He would not accept this until it was stated in writing that this was the case.

Why were they able to do it? The organisation was very clear about where they stood in terms of the law. They had clear policies which reflected the organisation’s responsibilities under the law. The policies all emphasise the importance of maintaining the dignity of individuals and how all staff have a responsibility to ensure this happens.
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Organisation: Private Sector Service Provider

What was the issue? The firm’s Christian network objected to the company investing in the lesbian, gay and bisexual network. They felt it was an indication that the company was associating itself with something that is, in their view fundamentally wrong. The Christian group felt that by sponsoring a lesbian, gay and bisexual network group the company was taking sides and indicating a bias towards people who are gay over people of faith. The equality team received letters of complaint about their support for the sexual orientation network.

Could anything have gone better?  The company worked with each group to try and raise awareness about the issues that each group faced, and why the networks are important. The company felt it was their responsibility to try and encourage their staff to see things from a different perspective, including the fact that gay people aren’t, by virtue of their sexual orientation, immoral. They also integrated exercises to raise awareness about sexual orientation into other work including training, and dignity and respect policies. They have also ensured that both groups are fully involved and included in any diversity plans, for example, Diversity Week. The aim is to demonstrate to the parties that the company will support them both.

Why were they able to do it? The company was able to engage in open discourse about the Christian network’s objections because they had clear routes of communication between the equality and diversity department and the staff networks. The manager has aimed to understand the different perspectives and has acted as a mediator between the two groups.

What could have gone better? The company intends to bring both groups together to talk about the issues that are concerning them and try to develop relations between the two. Despite the strongly-held views of the Christian network, there is no personal animosity between staff and therefore the aim is to increase
understanding and awareness about the importance of network groups and why the company is supporting both.
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Organisation: Retail Bank

What was the issue? The bank decided to fly a rainbow flag on top of their building so it could be seen from those who were attending the pride parade. Two members of staff contacted the bank to complain. The first phoned the facilities department and told the person who answered that he was a committed Christian and was offended by the flag and that he didn’t want to go to work that morning. Another emailed and said that he didn’t want to be associated with gay people and gay people should ‘keep their habits to themselves’. He felt that staff shouldn’t have to think about lesbian and gay people and it had nothing to do with the workplace. He felt that lesbian and gay people and activities should be ‘kept behind closed doors’.

What did they do? The caller was referred to the equal opportunities department and the second person emailed them directly. The department answered straight away and explained how the flag was part of the equality and diversity strategy to be more inclusive of lesbian, gay and bisexual staff. Whilst demonstrating respect for the views of the member of staff, they made it clear that there was no place for discrimination or discriminatory attitudes in the company. The department made it clear that lesbian and gay staff were a visible and valued part of the organisation and it was crucial that they could feel able to be themselves in the workplace, and therefore fully productive. One contacted them again and thanked the department for their response. They said that they understood now why the bank had flown the flag, they had read the diversity strategy and understood how this was a part of that strategy. The member of staff noted that the bank had a staff network for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff and asked whether there was an equivalent network for Christians. The equality and diversity department were able to email back and confirm that there was an informal group, and provide contact details. The member of staff replied with thanks. The equality and diversity department understood that he had not changed his mind, but understood why they had a strategy for lesbian and gay staff.

Why were they able to do it? The bank had a very clearly articulated and strategic rationale behind their equality and diversity work in relation to sexual orientation. They were able to explain with confidence the reasons why they take certain actions and demonstrate to other members of staff why it is important. They therefore prevented the incident from escalating and helped achieve good relations between staff.

 

What was the issue? After consultation with lesbian, gay and bisexual staff, a bank decided that it wanted to demonstrate its commitment to sexual orientation equality. The bank therefore sponsored a publication which was widely circulated in collaboration with annual Pride. The bank had an editorial piece and adverts in the supplement. The supplement also contained an advert about religiously motivated homophobic hate crime. The bank received a high number of complaints from a Christian organisation. Complaints were sent to the Chairman and the Chief Executive. The complaints stated that the bank should not be involved with any work to promote sexual orientation because being lesbian, gay or bisexual is immoral and against God.

What did they do? The bank replied to the letters and complaints and stated very clearly that they were committed to equality on the grounds of sexual orientation, and sponsoring the supplement was part of their equality and diversity strategy. The Chairman and the Chief Executive signed the letters. The letters explained why sexual orientation equality was a business imperative and that it was important to ensure that lesbian, gay and bisexual staff felt included and able to be themselves.

Why were they able to do it? The Chief Executive, Chairman, and the Corporate and Social Responsibility Department were fully committed to the sexual orientation strategy and were very willing to defend the strategy when there was a negative external response. This robust commitment from the top of the organisation meant that the situation was handled effectively.
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Organisation: Public Sector Uniformed Service

What was the issue? As part of the equality and diversity strategy, a uniformed service has made a commitment to recruit more lesbian, gay and bisexual people to the service. Part of this strategy involves showing their commitment to the community by attending Pride festivals. A number of staff across the organisation had said that they do not want to be involved in the festival because it is against their religious beliefs. The equality and diversity team asked whether this meant staff would be reluctant to attend to an emergency in a gay venue. The staff said that they would do their job, but they did not consider attending Pride part of their responsibilities. Initially, the equality and diversity department felt they couldn’t force anyone to take part in Pride and therefore people were able to exclude themselves because of their faith. The equality and diversity team were concerned that not all those who objected to attending pride were objecting because of their faith, but simply because they were being ‘mischievous’. Some did not want to attend Pride in case other people thought they were gay. Others did express a religious objection to the event. The initial meeting was highly upsetting for gay staff and the equality and diversity team struggled to find a solution.

What did they do? In the first year, the equality and diversity team allowed staff to miss Pride; they didn’t feel they could make people attend. Over the next few years they explained how the role of uniformed staff was changing. The role was no longer just about attending incidents but also about reaching out to communities. By engaging with a community before incidents, they could help prevent them. Attending Pride therefore represented a service delivered to communities, and not to deliver those services to the lesbian and gay community would be discriminatory. They increased training around sexual orientation, tried to dispel some of the myths around lesbian and gay people and also provided a forum on the intranet for people to raise and discuss concerns. This enabled the equality and diversity team to explain the equality strategy, and how outreach work with the gay community fits with that strategy. Before each Pride they now deliver training to all staff about why attending is important.

What was the outcome? There is now less opposition to attending Pride. Staff are more willing to be involved and understand how it fits with the broader agenda. The equality and diversity team were keen to educate staff as to why engagement with lesbian and gay staff was important, rather than discipline staff for discrimination.
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