Gay equality organisation Stonewall has said that prejudice in the public services can never be acceptable, after a Christian registrar convinced an employment tribunal she should have been allowed to opt out of performing civil partnerships.
“Our clear view is that no one involved in the delivery of public funded services should be permitted to pick and choose who they serve,” chief executive Ben Summerskill told PinkNews.co.uk.
“No doubt 40 years ago there would have been registrars who objected to mixed marriage, but that was as unacceptable as the prejudice demonstrated in this case.”
The tribunal ruled that Lillian Ladele was discriminated against on the grounds of her Christian faith and suffered harassment.
“It is an important case, which may have a wider impact than the dispute between the parties,” the tribunal said.
“Islington Council rightly considered the importance of the right of the gay community not to be discriminated against, but did not consider the right of Miss Ladele as a member of a religious group.”
Ms Ledele, who had worked for the council for more than 16 years, initially swapped with colleagues to avoid performing gay and lesbian ceremonies after civil partnerships became legal in 2005.
After formal complaints were made against her, an internal disciplinary investigation began.
Christian fundamentalist groups have claimed that this employment tribunal ruling will sets a precedent about where they can and cannot claim their religious beliefs should be taken into account at work.
It raises the possibility of innumerable Christians and others claiming they should be allowed to opt out of performing their duties because of their religious beliefs.
The tribunal said that Islington council was able to fulfil its responsibility to perform civil partnerships without insisting that all registrars carry them out.
Therefore by compelling Ms Ladele to conduct gay and lesbian ceremonies the council was guilty of indirect religious discrimination.
Councillor John Gilbert, Islington council’s executive member for Human Resources, said:
“We are now considering the judgment carefully in order to decide whether we should appeal.
“On first reading, the tribunal seems to have based its findings primarily on the fact that we could have continued to provide civil partnerships without Ms Ladele.
“The wider issue of whether councils should be able to expect employees to carry out civil partnerships doesn’t seem to have been fully addressed.
“In our view this is a crucial question that has much wider implications for local authorities and employers.
“We’d like to assure staff and service users that our commitment to services and equalities won’t be affected.”
Stonewall stressed the implications of religious opt-outs on the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
“It is clearly humiliating for a gay couple if they have an appointment with a registrar and halfway through the meeting she announces she is not going to preside over their special day because of her personal prejudice,” said Mr Summerskill.