The national counselling service for couples and family relationships has said its commitment to equality of access to their services has been validated by an employment tribunal.
Gary McFarlane claimed he was discriminated against on the grounds of his religion when employed by Relate.
He worked for the service in Avon and is also a solicitor and a part-time tutor on relationships at Trinity Theological College in Bristol.
He said that he had “overcome” his prejudices against same-sex couples since he began working as a Relate counsellor in 2003, but now that he is training to be a psychosexual therapist, he feels he cannot deal with gay and lesbian people as giving them sex therapy would be “encouraging sin.”
Mr McFarlane claimed at an employment tribunal in Bristol last month that the publicly-funded national counselling service failed to accommodate his faith or allow him to try to overcome his reservations.
Counsel for Relate admitted that the organisation should given him notice to leave instead of dismissing him on the grounds of gross misconduct and accepted his claim of wrongful dismissal.
Today the tribunal dismissed his claims of religious discrimination and unfair dismissal.
A spokesperson for Relate said:
“This important decision validates Relate’s commitment to equality of access to our services.
“Our trusted service, both in Avon and across the country, relies on making respectful and professional counselling and sex therapy available equally to all members of our society, regardless of their gender, age, race, religion, sexual orientation or relationship status, and we take every effort to balance rights which may be competing.
“We recognise the importance of people’s religious beliefs to them and we are committed to supporting all religions working within Relate.
“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.”
The tribunal’s ruling is a blow to fundamentalist Christians who claim they should be allowed to bring their prejudices against gay people into the workplace.
Last month the Employment Appeals Tribunal rubbished the claims of a registrar who tried to “opt out” of registering civil partnerships because she feels God would not approve.
Lillian Ladele had won at a previous employment tribunal that agreed she was discriminated against by her employer on the grounds of her religion.
The EAT overturned the original judgement and said Islington council were not taking disciplinary action against Ms Ladele for holding her religious beliefs; they did so because she was refusing to carry out civil partnership ceremonies and this involved discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
Mr McFarlane’s case was backed by a group created “to stand up publicly against a tide of unChristian legal and political changes in the United Kingdom.”
Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON) claimed today that the law needs to be clarified.
Andrea Minichiello Williams of sister organisation Christian Legal Centre said :
“The law is in a confused state; in the case of Lillian Ladele, the Islington Registrar, the Court held that Christian belief must give way to the rights of same sex couples; but in the case of Gary McFarlane there is a finding of wrongful dismissal.
“The courts and public are confused; we call on the Government to recognise the legitimate expression of conscience by Christians in the area of sexual orientation and provide protection where necessary.
“It is important to note that Mr. McFarlane has never refused to counsel a same sex couple; he merely raised the potential conflict between his Christian faith and homosexual conduct.
“It is deeply disturbing that the mere expression of religious belief with an inability to give unqualified support to sexual orientation issues means that a Christian can be dismissed with no attempt to provide suitable accommodation for his or her beliefs.
“The law preventing religious discrimination against Christians is in danger of becoming a dead letter.”