10th August 2017

Disciplinary action against an individual for voicing religious views in the workplace did not amount to discrimination

At a glance

The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled it did not constitute religious discrimination when a Disciplinary Policy was applied to a Pentecostal Christian, for quoting a passage from the Bible condemning homosexuality and speaking of repentance during a prison church service. Tessa Robinson from RB’s Employment Team considers this decision further.

In the case of Trayhorn v The Secretary of State for Justice, the Claimant, Mr B Trayhorn, was employed by the Secretary of State for Justice as a gardener at HM Prison Littlehey from 31 May 2011 until his resignation in December 2014. HMP Littlehey is a prison with approximately 1,200 inmates including sex offenders and young offenders. Mr Trayhorn was a Pentecostal Christian. The Pentecostal tradition of the Christian faith is one where there is a fundamentalist approach to the words of the Bible. From 2012 onwards, Mr Trayhorn volunteered to help at services in the prison chapel and would sometimes speak during the services.

In February 2014, Mr Trayhorn spoke as part of a service in the prison chapel and said that marriage between “homosexuals” was “wrong” and “needed stopping”. During another service, Mr Trayhorn quoted parts of the Bible which dealt with matters relating to drunkenness, sex outside of marriage, theft and homosexuality. After quoting the passages he stated “You may want to complain about this but this is the word of God. God loves you and wants to forgive you”. Several complaints about his remarks were made.

Following an investigation, it was found that Mr Trayhorn had made homophobic statements and that the matter warranted progression to a disciplinary hearing. Mr Trayhorn went on sick leave and was signed off for stress. After a disciplinary hearing he was given a final written warning. He subsequently resigned and brought claims for constructive unfair dismissal and religious discrimination.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal’s decision was that the disciplinary procedures had not been invoked because of his religious views, but because of the way in which he manifested them. The Respondent stated that there is a paramount duty within the prison sector ‘to maintain the security of the prison, to ensure the proper maintenance of order within the prison and to protect the security of everyone within the prison….Part of that duty is to ensure the equality of treatment within the prison between people as far as is possible.” The EAT agreed that derogatory remarks regarding any specific group within the prison could be seen to legitimise misbehaviour towards them, particularly if made by someone in a position of presumed authority. It was ruled that the Bible text could have been used in a different way and put into context. The application of their policy therefore did not restrict religious views, but were necessary to protect the security of the prison which was a particularly sensitive environment.

What does this mean for employers?

The sensitive environment of a prison housing sex offenders was crucial in the consideration of the Tribunals. In reality, there will be very few work environments where the high security risk applicable in this setting would apply. It is therefore possible that had the same occurred in a different setting, the strict application of the disciplinary policy for voicing religious views would amount to religious discrimination. However the judgment was very clear that the disciplinary action was taken because of the way in which the views were voiced, not simply because the views were held. Therefore the crucial task for employers faced with similar situations is to separate the behaviour itself from the aspects relating to religious belief.

Employers should also educate employees to ensure they are sensitive to those beliefs held by others and that any discussion of religious views are had in a manner which is not offensive to others. This will limit the potential liability for harassment claims from those who may be offended by certain views.

If you would like to understand more about the implications of this case and how you can avoid similar problems, why not call us to discuss. Please contact Tessa Robinson by emailing Tessa or calling her on +44 (0)1293 558553.

This document is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this document.