Can religious conversations get employees into trouble for gross misconduct?
This article looks into a Court of Appeal case about the NHS dismissing an employee who had religious discussions with patients.
UK law outlaws religious discrimination in the workplace. If an employee engages in it, disciplinary action could result. That could lead to a dismissal or resignation which is unfair.
What happens if an employee claims that disciplinary action taken because of religious conversations is discriminatory? This case comes only a couple of years after the case of the prison worker who told convicts that homosexuality is a sin. In that case, the EAT said a workplace ban on that sort of discussions was not indirect discrimination. It was a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ (keeping order and safety in the prison).
However this was a case about unfair dismissal. In order to prove unfair dismissal, an employee must show that the decision to dismiss fell outside the prescribed ‘fair reasons’ of dismissal. And they must show it was unreasonable.
The allegation against Mrs Kuteh
Mrs Kuteh, a devout Christian, had 8 years’ service. Her role was to carry out pre-operative assessments on patients. The NHS began receiving complaints from patients that she was discussing religion with them. Specific complaints about Mrs Kuteh included:
- Saying ‘what do you think Easter is about’, to a patient, who responded that ‘[she] wasn’t there to talk about religion’;
- Telling a cancer patient that if they prayed to God, they would have a better chance of survival; and
- Giving a patient a bible and telling them she would pray for them.
The NHS suspended Mrs Kuteh whilst they investigated the allegations. At the investigation meeting Mrs Kuteh argued that her actions were a legitimate part of her healing work. In a later disciplinary hearing, the NHS dismissed her for gross misconduct.
Mrs Kuteh brought a claim of unfair dismissal. She argued that she had a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief under the European Convention of Human Rights. The ET rejected this. It said the dismissal was fair because her conduct fell in the category of converting, or attempting to convert someone from one religion to another (this is known as ‘proselytising’). It wasn’t expressing or having those religious beliefs.
What the case says
Mrs Kuteh appealed it up to the Court of Appeal, which agreed. It said that proselytising against someone’s will isn’t protected by the Convention on Human Rights.
Therefore employers should feel confident in giving warnings or even dismissing staff who have this kind of discussion with others. But remember that there is a gradient of behaviour ranging from “I went to Church on Sunday” through “Will you come to Church with me on Sunday”, all the way to “Homosexuality is a sin”. There is no blanket rule so you must take each case on its merits.
Case report: Kuteh v NHS
By Zahid Reza
Image used under CC courtesy of Masterbutler