December 2013 UK case law highlights: what employers need to do

Important decisions from the UK courts and tribunals this month covered the interaction between religious beliefs and sexual orientation, religious practices, and the use of occupational health reports. Below we highlight three important lessons for employers that are dealing with these matters.

  1. Take care when balancing an employee’s religious beliefs with another person’s sexual orientation
  2. Avoid questioning an employee’s genuine religious practices
  3. Don’t “rubber stamp” occupational health reports

1. Take care when balancing an employee’s religious beliefs with another person’s sexual orientation

In Bull and another v Hall and another, the Supreme Court held that the owners of a bed and breakfast, whose religious beliefs include that sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage are sinful, could not justify their refusal to give civil partners a room with a double bed.

Although this case concerned a claim of sexual orientation discrimination in the provision of goods and services, this decision is important to employers that face the difficult situation of an employee refusing to carry out duties that conflict with his or her religious beliefs, when that stance could discriminate against a client or customer on the basis of sexual orientation.

2. Avoid questioning an employee’s genuine religious practices

In Mba v Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Merton, the Court of Appeal found that the employment tribunal was correct to reject the indirect religion or belief discrimination claim brought by a Christian care worker who resigned after a dispute with her employer over her refusal to work on Sundays.

However, this case provides a warning to other employers not to take an employee’s request to accommodate his or her genuinely held religious practices any less seriously because most individuals of that religion do not go that far. It is not for the employer to question how fervently an employee practises his or her religion.

3. Don’t “rubber stamp” occupational health reports

In Gallop v Newport City Council, the Court of Appeal held that, while an occupational health report can assist employers in deciding whether or not an employee is disabled, it is up to the employer itself to make the final judgment as to whether or not the employee is covered by disability discrimination legislation. Employers must not simply “rubber stamp” the medical adviser’s opinion.

Following this case, employers need to be more careful than ever if they receive advice that an employee on sick leave is not disabled. Where there is any doubt, the sensible employer may consider it safest to offer adjustments to a non-disabled employee, with a view to getting him or her back to work and avoiding the risk of a disability discrimination claim.



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