School chaplain’s claim for religious discrimination is rejected

In the recent case of Randall v Trent College Ltd and others ET/2600288/2020, an employment tribunal rejected a school chaplain’s claim for belief or religion discrimination, based on the school’s response to a sermon in chapel in which he said that pupils did not have to accept the ideas and ideologies of LGBT activists where they conflict with Christian values and they should make up their own minds.

The case background

The sermon was entitled ‘Competing ideologies’ and followed the school’s adoption of the “Educate and Celebrate” programme, aimed at “tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and ingrained attitudes in schools”. The claimant had opposed the adoption of the programme in the school which he described as ‘identity politics’ in conflict with the Christian values of the school. He took particular exception to a training session in which attendees were encouraged to chant ‘smash heteronormativity’ and the use by the trainer of the term ‘gender identity’ as a synonym for the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ in the Equality Act. The claimant therefore chose to deliver the sermon as a response to the Educate and Celebrate programme.

The sermon led to a significant number of complaints from staff and pupils. Disciplinary proceedings resulted, and the claimant was dismissed for gross misconduct, but reinstated on appeal by governors with a final written warning. He was later made redundant after a period on furlough. The school also made a referral to Prevent (a programme for preventing radicalisation of children) and the Local Authority Designated Officer responsible for safeguarding. No action was taken on those referrals.

The claim

The claimant brought claims of religion or belief discrimination, harassment and unfair dismissal, citing interference with his freedom of belief and freedom of expression under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The tribunal held that the claimant’s treatment had not been because of his beliefs, but because of his objectionable manifestation of them (applying the Court of Appeal decision in Page v NHS Trust Development Authority [2021] EWCA Civ 255).

It was of particular relevance that back in 2016 the claimant had also given a sermon on LGBT issues and, following similar complaints, had been told informally that these were sensitive topics that should only be dealt with in a classroom setting where ideas can be discussed and challenged. The claimant was advised that dealing with them in chapel (where there was no discussion) might create safeguarding risks. The claimant had deliberately disregarded that advice and had chosen not to share the topic in advance (despite carefully scripting it and sending it to a prominent theologian for comment) as he knew that he would likely have been told not to deliver it. The tribunal found that the school had been justified in objecting to the way the claimant manifested his beliefs, as it considered the claimant had acted contrary to his safeguarding duties and the school’s statutory duties to pupils. The tribunal considered that the claimant did not have ‘free reign’ [sic] to say what he wanted in chapel and that his language e.g. his comparison to ‘the tactic of totalitarianism and dictatorship’ was ‘inflammatory’.

The claimant has indicated an intention to appeal.

School ethos, free speech and safeguarding

This case raises a number of interesting and complex issues including the intersection of school ethos, free speech and safeguarding.  The tribunal referred to Guidance on the Independent Schools Standards Regulations which makes clear that ‘the PSHE curriculum must be designed to encourage respect for other people, with particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act’. The Guidance also goes on to note that schools have “wide discretion” to teach faith perspectives on LGBT issues e.g. ‘ teaching that the faith position of the school is that marriage is only between a man and woman is acceptable’. However, this must always be done in a way which advocates respect for others. The tribunal’s judgment in this case was that the claimant had crossed that line with ‘inflammatory’ language.  

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