A Christian doctor, Dr Mackereth, told an Employment Tribunal that he was dismissed from his position as a benefits assessor by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) due to his religious beliefs. He argued that he was the victim of discrimination at work when he refused to refer to ‘a 6ft tall bearded man’ as ‘madam’. He further alleged that no effort was made to accommodate his beliefs, such as referring transgender clients to another doctor.
He alleged that during his two-week training, he was asked the hypothetical question: ‘if you have a man, 6ft tall with a beard, who says he wants to be addressed as “she” and “Mrs”, would you do that?’ He responded by saying that his religious conscience would not let him do so, and claims he was dismissed as a result of this refusal.
However, his former employer categorically denied this, telling the Tribunal there had been no such discussion and that Dr Mackereth had not been suspended nor dismissed. Describing the meeting, Mr Owen from the DWP said: “I asked the claimant if he would respect the customer’s wish to be referred to by their chosen sexuality and name and would he convey that in his written report. The claimant categorically stated that he would not do that due to his beliefs and he could not put that in a report as his conscience would not allow that. The claimant also stated that he understood that his behaviour could be offensive.”
Discrimination or Reasonable Instruction?
It seems that it is not Dr Mackereth’s beliefs that put him in this situation but more his conduct – he ultimately refused to obey a reasonable management instruction. Anybody who refused to address patients in the required way would be treated exactly the same, regardless of their individual beliefs. Also there is no evidence to suggest that the instruction causes a particular disadvantage to people who share his religious beliefs – something he would need to demonstrate to the Tribunal.
A hearing in Birmingham was told how Dr Mackereth believes transgenderism is a “delusional belief” and an ideology “which I disbelieve and detest”. He described using transgender pronouns as “a ritual denial of an obvious truth”, adding: “I don’t believe a person can change their gender. It’s not scientifically or medically possible”.
Since equality legislation came into force in the UK, there has always been the question as to how the right to manifest a religion or belief should be protected when faced with the competing right not to be discriminated against.
In this case, more specifically, the question is whether a doctor should be legally required to use the pronoun ‘she’ when addressing someone born a ‘he’ (and vice versa), even if that conflicts with their religious beliefs. Ultimately, it has fallen to the UK courts to provide further guidance on this.
What Guidance Have the Courts Provided?
Two cases relating to the complexity of balancing discrimination at work with respecting employee’s personal include: Ladele v United Kingdom – where a Christian registrar was threatened with dismissal for refusing to carry out civil partnerships; and McFarlane v United Kingdom – which concerned a relationship counsellor who did not want to offer therapy to gay people on sexual issues.
In both cases, the European Court of Human Rights held that the aim of providing a non-discriminatory service to people was legitimate and created the right balance between the individuals’ right to manifest their religious beliefs and the employers’ interests in protecting the rights of others.
What Does This Mean for Employers and Discrimination at Work?
The courts have made it clear that religious beliefs cannot be used as an excuse to treat people less favourably. That being said, given the wide range of different factual scenarios that may arise, it would not be surprising to see the courts provide further guidance on this topic in the not too distant future.
Employers should ensure that all staff have been given thorough equality and diversity training and that they are clear what standards are expected of them. If during this process, someone raises concerns, they can be dealt with before the matter escalates any further.