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Dismissal for discussing religious beliefs

One big case that has concluded recently is that of a nurse who was dismissed for expressing her religious beliefs at work.

Employers are always wary about disciplinary action in response to issues involving an employee’s beliefs or religion. Under the Equality Act 2010, religious beliefs are a protected characteristic and any suggestion of a link between dismissal and religion is potentially discriminatory.

This is why the case of Kuteh v Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust has captured the attention of employment lawyers and employers nationwide. The case has now led the Court of Appeal to rule that an employee who initiates inappropriate conversations about religion at their workplace can be fairly dismissed if a proper disciplinary procedure is followed.

Overview

Mrs Kuteh had worked at Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford, Kent, since 2007 and was required to ask patients about their faith when completing pre-operative questionnaires. There were a number of complaints made against her from patients who felt she was “preaching” at them and pressurising them to pray with her. She continued to discuss religion with patients despite a written warning from management.

Mrs Kuteh was ultimately suspended pending an investigation at which point her employer became aware of even more complaints against her. She was dismissed for breach of trust and confidence.

Mrs Kuteh appealed her dismissal but the decision was upheld. The nurse then took her case to the Employment Tribunal referring to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. She did not make a claim for religious discrimination.

The Tribunal made a distinction between Mrs Kuteh evangelising her beliefs as opposed to being prevented from expressing them. The claim for wrongful dismissal was denied and Mrs Kuteh appealed.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed the claim on the grounds that it had no reasonable prospects of success and a further appeal was heard in the Court of Appeal, which upheld the previous decisions. The basis for its decision was the fact that Mrs Kuteh had been warned that her behaviour was unacceptable and had continued to evangelise to patients about religion. Her actions represented misconduct and her employer had followed the correct procedures to dismissal.

Comment

The matter of religious discrimination was not considered in any of these hearings because a claim of discrimination had not been made. That said, however, the Court of Appeal ruling makes it clear that an employer can fairly dismiss an employee if they engage in inappropriate conversations about their religion or beliefs. The caveat is that robust disciplinary procedures must be followed and well documented.