Religious discrimination at school: recent employment tribunal

Mrs K Higgs, the claimant in this case, was employed as a pastoral administrator and work experience manager by Farmor’s School. In October 2018 the school’s headmaster received a complaint about Mrs Higgs from outside the school via email. The complaint alleged that a post made by Mrs Higgs on her Facebook account demonstrated homophobia and prejudice against the LGBT community, specifically regarding same-sex relationships and marriage, and gender fluidity.

Farmor’s School conducted an investigation and a disciplinary hearing which resulted in Mrs Higgs being dismissed for gross misconduct, specifically for breaching the school’s conduct policy. She appealed the school’s decision but was unsuccessful, after which she brought a claim to the tribunal.

Mrs Higgs’s claim was that the entire process that led to her dismissal and the rejection of her appeal amounted to direct discrimination or harassment because of her religious beliefs. In terms of the law, “Religion” means any religion, or a lack of religion, and “belief” means any religious or philosophical belief or a lack of belief. For “religion” to be protected, it must have a clear structure and belief system. “Religious belief” goes beyond beliefs about and adherence to a religion or its central articles of faith and may vary from person to person within the same religion. For a philosophical belief to be protected it must affect how a person lives their life or perceives the world and it must:

  • be genuinely held and not just an opinion or point of view

  • be a belief about a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour

  • attain a certain level of logic, seriousness, structure and importance

  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

Direct religious discrimination is treating someone less favourably on the grounds of religion or belief. For example, refusing to: recruit, promote or offer specific rewards because of religion or belief.

Following the hearing, the tribunal agreed that Mrs Higgs’s beliefs were indeed protected under the Equality Act 2010 but that it did not see that the school had acted unreasonably. In the tribunal’s view, the summary dismissal of Mrs Higgs was the result of a genuine belief on the part of the school that she had committed gross misconduct. Although it is possible to see a connection between her beliefs and her treatment, the offending Facebook posts clearly expressing her beliefs regarding same-sex marriage and gender fluidity, that treatment was because the school felt that the language of the posts might reasonably lead a reader to conclude that she held homophobic and transphobic views, although she vehemently denied that she did so.

The tribunal also concluded that the disciplinary process the school had undertaken was entirely unexceptional and that it was not satisfied that the process constituted or was intended to constitute harassment.

The case is being appealed and after hearing it the appeal tribunal may give a decision that differs from that of the tribunal that heard it originally. In the meantime, this case highlights the importance of following a proper disciplinary procedure and gathering as much information as possible through a thorough investigation.