Secular and libertarian groups have welcomed the Court of Appeal ruling yesterday that a council did not discriminate against a Christian registrar who refused to perform civil partnerships.
Lillian Ladele claimed that she could not officiate the ceremonies for gay couples because of her strict Christian beliefs.
She argued that Islington council’s disciplinary action was discriminatory but the Court of Appeal ruled against her in the latest round of the case.
Gay organisation Stonewall said it was pleased the court had “upheld the right of lesbian and gay people to receive public services from public servants”.
Civil rights group Liberty had supported council in the case and described it as a “common sense judgement”.
Corinna Ferguson, Liberty’s legal officer who specialises in religious freedom cases, said: “Freedom of conscience is incredibly precious but other people have rights and freedoms too. Employers can’t be expected to promote equal treatment under the law if they must also accommodate discrimination on the part of their employees.”
She added that Liberty was pleased to support religious people who were being “punished for doing no harm”, such as British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, who was barred from wearing a small cross at work.
Yesterday, the Christian Institute and the Christian Legal Centre told PinkNews.co.uk that other councils had allowed registrars to avoid performing civil partnerships ceremonies.
But Harriet Bowtell, an employment solititor at Russell Jones & Walker, said that this could lead to those with extremist views being allowed to discriminate.
She said: “It’s not about rights trumping others, it’s about the laws in our society. We do have laws which outlaw sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace and in good and services. We do have freedom to express religious beliefs but that cannot override laws in this country. I would not call this a sad day for democracy, as the Christian Legal Centre said.
“They argued that Islington council had other options such as letting other registrars do civil partnerships but Islington decided that all registrars would perform them. It has a general policy of no discrimination and to uphold that, it couldn’t have registrars who would discriminate. If it was open for them [registrars such as Ladele], those with extreme views, such as on mixed-race marriages, could also be allowed to discriminate.”
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said the ruling was important and “definitive”.
He said: “It establishes, we hope definitively, that because a person has strong religious views, it does not give them the right to discriminate against and deny services to others of whom they disapprove.”
“Parliament has decided that gay people are entitled to civil partnerships and that their right to such a service be protected in law, so there should therefore be no opt-outs on any grounds, religious or otherwise, for public servants from performing these ceremonies. Christian conscience should not be a blanket licence to discriminate against others.”
The Court of Appeal ruling is the latest round in the saga, which began in 2007.
An employment tribunal in 2008 had ruled in her favour but Islington council successfully appealed the decision at the Employment Appeals Tribunal.
Ladele and the Christian Institute, which is supporting her, were refused leave to appeal at the Supreme Court yesterday.
However, they plan to go to the Supreme Court directly to attempt to overturn the ruling.