A person’s religion is a very personal belief, and employees are rightly protected from discrimination based on their religion. The courts have, over the years, been asked to rule on a number of cases where there are restrictions by employers on how an employee’s religion manifests itself in the workplace.
Whilst an employee’s religion is to be respected, how it manifests itself in the workplace can affect other staff and customers. Can an employer place reasonable restrictions on an employee and is it unfair to dismiss an employee where those restrictions are breached? Not if the religious behaviour amounts to proselytising and is improper, held the Court of Appeal in Kuteh v Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust.
The Claimant was a nurse, working in a pre-operative assessment role. During assessments, she often took the opportunity to talk to patients about religion. Complaints were made about this by patients, leading the matron to speak to the Claimant about the inappropriateness of her actions. She assured the matron she would no longer initiate conversations with patients about religion. She then breached that assurance, including by saying prayers for patients and asking a patient to sing a psalm with her. Disciplinary proceedings were brought and the Claimant was dismissed.
The employment tribunal found the dismissal fair and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) refused permission to appeal. On appeal against that refusal, the Claimant complained that the tribunal had failed to distinguish between true evangelism and improper proselytism in considering the impact of the right under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights to manifest religion on the fairness of the dismissal.
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. The Court considered that the Claimant had acted inappropriately both by improperly proselytising to patients and by failing to follow a lawful management order. Given that the disciplinary process was fairly carried out and the conclusion reached was reasonable, the appeal was dismissed, and the fairness of the dismissal was upheld.
Employers should always tread very carefully regarding an employee’s religious beliefs and observances. Where possible you should always take reasonable steps to accommodate them as this will not only result in a better employee/employer relationship but will also avoid unnecessary disputes.
The key to this case was that the employer had received complaints from patients and had then followed a full and detailed disciplinary procedure to investigate these complaints and then put in place only the minimal possible controls. Should you find yourself in this situation we strongly advise that you take advice before taking any steps. Remember, as an RMIF member you have access to the RMIF legal helpline for telephone advice.
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