In a recent case, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has overturned an employment tribunal’s decision to strike out a church minister’s complaint of direct marriage discrimination.
The minister was employed in North London and had been married for 18 years before his marriage started to break down. He believed that some members of the church would not accept him if his marriage failed, so he agreed to a recommended sabbatical in an attempt to save his marriage. During this sabbatical, he alleged that the church leadership and some members of the congregation subjected him to a campaign of criticism in relation to his marriage. He was invited to attend a meeting with the church trustees where he was subsequently dismissed due to a breach of trust and confidence in the employment relationship and because of concerns about the possible effect on the ministry.
After his dismissal, he brought an employment tribunal claim for direct discrimination on the grounds of marriage. Marriage is a protected characteristic of the Equality Act 2010. This means that where someone is subject to less favourable treatment as a result of being married, they can bring a claim for direct discrimination on these grounds. However, the employment tribunal struck out his claim, stating that he had not engaged the protected characteristic of marriage as his case was that he had been dismissed because of his marriage difficulties, not because he was married. The minister appealed the decision to the EAT.
The EAT disagreed with the employment tribunal. When reviewing the case, they concluded that the dismissal was actually because of the minister’s marriage difficulties and the fact that he was married. The only reason the marriage difficulties were an issue for the church was because there was a marriage in which difficulties could arise. Further, they concluded that his marriage didn’t have to be the only or main reason for the dismissal for the protected characteristic to be engaged, as long as the marriage played a part in any decision. This case showed that as the church held marriage in a high regard, the difficulties that arose between the minister and his wife were more of an issue to the church because of the fact that the difficulties were taking place within a marriage. This case is comparable to someone who was in a close relationship but not married and had been dismissed for having difficulties in that relationship.
Following the decision by the EAT, the minister will now be able to bring his case against the trustees of the church for direct marriage discrimination.
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