Another employment dispute exposing the conflicts between the protected characteristics of religious beliefs and sexual orientation

A school assistant who is Christian has lost her employment tribunal case for direct religious belief discrimination and harassment.

The employee in question is Kristie Higgs who worked for Farmor’s school in Gloucestershire and who was dismissed for gross misconduct. The school decided to take disciplinary action after Higgs shared Facebook posts which criticised the introduction of teaching about LGBTQ+ relationships in primary schools. Her case was supported by the Christian Legal Centre which has also supported other Claimants who have been dismissed for their religious beliefs.

After making her views known on her private Facebook page, a complaint was made anonymously to the Head Teacher of the school, who said that Higg’s comments were “homophobic and prejudiced the LGBT community”.

The case was heard by the Bristol employment tribunal where Higgs had argued that her dismissal breached her freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Higg’s further complained that the investigation into the complaints was intimidating lasting six hours and that her posts were compared to “pro-Nazi” views.

The substance of Higg’s case was about her lack of understanding on issues such as gender fluidity, and same-sex marriage, and her belief in the bible and in particular Genisis, that ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female – he created them”.

In their Judgment the employment tribunal said that its task was to determine if there was a causal connection between these beliefs and the way she was treated by the employer. The employment tribunal concluded that there was no causal link.

The Employment Judge specifically stated in the Judgment that “Although not stated as clearly or simply as this, the act of which we concluded Mrs Higgs was accused and eventually found guilty was posting items on Facebook that might reasonably lead people who read her posts to conclude that she was homophobic and transphobic. That behaviour, the school felt, had the potential for a negative impact in relation to various groups of people, namely pupils, parents, staff and the wider community”.

The claim for harassment also failed in that the Employment Judge said that although the disciplinary process would have been unpleasant for Higgs to experience, it had not violated her dignity or created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her.

The School stated that its actions taken against Higgs in dismissing her, were in response to the particular language that she used on social media, which was not reflective of their ethos as a school and which would have a negative impact on various groups of people.

It would seem however that this is not the end of the story as Higgs has made it clear that she intends to appeal the decision as she believes that she lost her job due to her religious beliefs “which our society does not appear to tolerate or even understand anymore.” She went on to maintain that she wants “parents to have the freedom to bring up their children in line with their Christian beliefs…I want young children to be protected from this harmful ideology. Christians must be able to share their opinions and beliefs without fear of losing their jobs”.

This case demonstrates yet again the difficulties where certain protected characteristics conflict with each other, with the school having to consider the employee’s religious beliefs and how they impact on the wider LGBTQ+ community and the protected characteristic of sexual orientation.

It is recommended that employers have up to date equal opportunities policies that can deal with these types of issue, combined with a social media policy making it clear what is and what is not acceptable in terms of behaviour and its impact on reputation.

Steven Eckett is a Partner and Head of Employment at Meaby & Co LLP. He can be contacted on 020 7703 5034 or seckett@meaby.co.uk