Wife who stood by sex offender husband was discriminated against
In a recent case, the Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) held that a teacher had suffered indirect religion or belief discrimination when she was dismissed after she refused to leave her husband, the headteacher of another school, after he was convicted of downloading indecent images of children. The teacher, who was a practising Anglican Christian, did not belief in divorce or separation and alleged that by being asked by her employer to choose between her job and her husband placed her at a disadvantage because of her religion and beliefs.
In this case, the teacher’s husband was arrested in 2013 on suspicion of downloading indecent images of children and voyeurism. The voyeurism involved using a camera hidden in a pen to photograph boys in a state of undress in the school changing rooms. There was no evidence to suggest that the teacher was aware of her husband’s actions however her employer suggested that it would struggle to see how it could support her if she remained with him.
The teacher decided to stay with her husband as long as she was satisfied he had demonstrated repentance. This would be consistent with her marriage vows, specifically her commitment, in the presence of God, for better or worse.
In March 2013, the teacher’s employer made its position clear and declared that it would be inappropriate for her to remain in their employment if her husband was convicted of offences and she continued to support him.
In April 2013 the teacher was subjected to a disciplinary investigation to consider potential gross misconduct in the form of erosion of trust and confidence in her ability to carry out safeguarding responsibilities as a teacher if she stayed with her husband. The teacher stated that she had done nothing wrong, was a separate person to her husband, had an exemplary track record in safeguarding and did not present a risk. The teacher challenged the employer’s suggestion that she had caused the school to suffer reputational damage.
In July 2013, the teacher’s husband started a prison sentence and in September 2013 the teacher was summarily dismissed for having chosen to maintain a relationship with her husband which the employer believed had eroded her suitability to carry out the safeguarding responsibilities of her role and that the choices she had made in her personal life were in direct contravention to the ethos of the school. The teacher’s internal appeal was unsuccessful.
At this point, the teacher submitted a claim of indirect discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. The employer defended the claim on the basis that there had been no ‘practice’ which had put her at a disadvantage because of her religion or belief.
At first instance the Tribunal found in the employer’s favour. It accepted that the teacher held a relevant religious belief and also accepted that the respondents had applied a policy of dismissing those who chose not to end a relationship with a person convicted of making indecent images of children and voyeurism. However, as the Tribunal found that the teacher would have been dismissed irrespective of her belief in the sanctity of her marriage vow and/or her religious beliefs there had been no disadvantage for the purpose of satisfying the principles of indirect discrimination. The teacher appealed to the EAT.
The EAT allowed the appeal and substituted a finding that there had been indirect discrimination on the basis that there had indeed been a relevant practice here and there had been a particular disadvantage to those who possessed certain beliefs regarding the sanctity of marriage as a result of their religion or personal beliefs.
This case demonstrates that to satisfy the principles of indirect discrimination, a policy or a practice does not need to have been repeated or exercised previously. Furthermore, it reminds employers of the high thresholds which must be met when seeking to rely on allegations relating to reputational damage.