British appeals court: No religious exemption for employees registering civil partnerships

by on December 17, 2009  •  In Employment law, Religion

An England and Wales Court of Appeal decision this week held that public employees working as registrars can be required to provide services to same-sex couples regardless of the employee's religious beliefs. In Ladele v. London Borough of Islington, the court upheld the decision by the Islington registrar's office to require Lillian Ladele to register same-sex partners despite what Ladele described as her "orthodox Christian view" that marriage should be limited to male-female couples and that enabling same-sex unions was "contrary to God's instructions." The court also rejected Ladele's claim that she had been subjected to discrimination based on religion.

Moreover, the court found that the British anti-discrimination law prohibiting different treatment in public services based on sexual orientation required the Borough to act as it did:

[H]owever much sympathy one may have with someone such as Ms. Ladele…, the legislature has decided that the requirements of a modern liberal democracy …include outlawing discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on ground of sexual orientation, subject only to very limited exceptions. 

The court noted that the anti-discrimination law exempts "organizations the purpose of which is the practice or advancement or the like of religion or belief."

At the end of its decision, the court states that borough governments can elect not to designate persons who have religious objections as "civil partnership registrars." I am not familiar with how such offices function in the UK, but this appears to reflect the principle that employers may accommodate religious objections to performance of certain aspects of a job if it is feasible to do so. 

I am in basic agreement with this decision. In my view, public employees have a duty to serve the public, not merely a portion of the public. However, if offices can be organized so that religious objectors can be transferred or otherwise assigned to jobs that do not involve issuing licenses to the public, that seems a pragmatic and reasonable result.

The case is subject to one more level of appeal.


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