Wicca and religious discrimination in employment

pentacleLast month we posted a very brief report on the case of Ms Karen Holland, a Wiccan who claimed that she had been sacked by the proprietors of the grocery store where she had worked for over two years because she had attended a Halloween ceremony.

Our earlier note was a rehash of a story in the Daily Mail; but we have now seen the transcript of the Tribunal’s judgment and what follows is based on that.

In Holland v Angel Supermarket Ltd & Anor [2013] Employment Tribunal 3301005-2013 Ms Holland had worked at a convenience store operated by the respondent company which was owned by the second respondent, Mr Tarloch Singh, a Sikh.

In October 2012 she agreed with her manager that she would work a late shift so that she could celebrate Halloween. On the following day Mr Singh asked her why she was working a later shift; and she described his reaction to her explanation as “seeming revolted by the idea that she was a Wiccan, or not Christian, and [she] was made to feel that there was something wrong with her” (para 10.2). In due course she was dismissed, ostensibly on the grounds that the company was reducing its workforce and her post was being eliminated, even though a male colleague, Mr Waheed Anwar, was retained (para 10.7).

The respondents’ evidence conflicted with Ms Holland’s version of events: Mr Singh alleged that CCTV footage had shown that Ms Holland had “put stuff in her bag” and that she had been dismissed for stealing (para 11.4). He also made other allegations of dishonesty (para 11.7) and stated that the dismissal letter had “contained an entirely false reason for the claimant’s dismissal, written out of pity at the claimant’s request to ensure that she would get Jobseeker’s Allowance” (para 11.8).

The Employment Tribunal concluded that “Procedurally, the dismissal was indefensible” (para 14) and preferred Ms Holland’s account of the facts (para 17). It also concluded that the tone and manner of Mr Singh’s comments

“… betrayed some antipathy towards the claimant because she was not an adherent of one of the more well-known world religions.  The comment was probably made; and made in a tone which she reasonably interpreted as being rejection of her as a Wiccan” (para 23).

The Tribunal concluded that the unfair dismissal claim had been made out and that Ms Holland had proved that she had been treated differently from a comparable employee. She had been dismissed ostensibly because of a downturn in sales  though that situation applied equally to Mr Anwar, who was not dismissed – and it was possible to infer from comments made to her about why Mr Anwar had been retained and not she that she was being dismissed because she was a woman. The claim of sex discrimination was therefore well-founded both in relation to the derogatory comment and the dismissal itself (para 30).

In relation to the claim of direct discrimination on grounds of religion and belief, the language used in the conversation on 1 November 2012 was a detriment within the meaning of s 39(2)(d) of the Equality Act 2010. A hypothetical Christian who had changed shifts to be able to celebrate a feast day that was not a public holiday would not have been subjected to that comment, because the explanation for requiring the change of shift would not have involved disclosing that he or she was not a Christian (para 31).

Ms Holland had also demonstrated less favourable treatment in relation to her dismissal, in that Mr Anwar (a Muslim) and another colleague, Ms Collett (a Christian) had not been dismissed. Bearing in mind Mr Tarloch Singh’s reported shocked reaction to the revelation that Ms Holland was a Wiccan and the juxtaposition of that conversation with the decision to dismiss her, she had satisfied the burden of proof placed upon her by s 136 Equality Act 2010 and the respondents’ explanations for their treatment of her had been unconvincing. The claim of direct discrimination on grounds of religion and belief was therefore made out (paras 33 & 34).

The Daily Mail reported at the time that the respondents had announced that they would appeal. Watch this space.

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