Is it acceptable for a teacher of secular subjects to express views on religion and morals in the course of classes?
In Mrs S Powell v Marr Corporation Ltd (England and Wales: Religion or Belief Discrimination)  UKET 1401951/2016, the claimant taught 16- to 24-year-olds with “challenging behaviour” . She was employed from 9 May 2016; and her terms and conditions provided that her first six months of employment would be probationary, during this time the respondent’s disciplinary procedure would not apply [9 &10]. On 25 July 2016, she covered a lesson that was ordinarily taught by another tutor. At some point, an altercation arose in the classroom and when her manager, Mrs Barker, arrived, Mrs Powell and a learner, K, were having a “heated discussion”. Ms Barker asked Mrs Powell to leave, then spoke to five of the eight learners – three having already left . They complained about being “preached at all day about Christianity”, that one had been told that “he was a bad Christian for believing in homosexuality” and another, openly gay, that she “will be going to hell if she does not repent her sins”, and that Mrs Powell had made a third “repeat the prayer of repentance before he was allowed to leave his 1:1 sessions with her” .
Mrs Powell was suspended then summoned to a disciplinary hearing. Subsequently, she told Ms Preston, the HR manager, that:
“I think that it is appropriate for me to share Christian views, I would like to say that teachers believe in different things and learners would ask to them and they would tell them what they believed by answering questions. So me answering questions is appropriate, if people don’t believe in Christianity then they shouldn’t be upset and people don’t have to share my views. Why people felt this way was because one person wanted payback and if he wasn’t there then this situation wouldn’t have happened as he was pinpointing out my views” .
Finally, she was dismissed. She claimed that her dismissal had been directly discriminatory on grounds of religion or belief. As a comparator, she relied on Andrew Spargo, the tutor for whom she had covered on 25 July 2016: his probationary period had been extended following concerns about his expression of political views and other conduct . Ms Barker confirmed that she had had recent meetings with Mr Spargo and that she would be extending his probation by three months, monitoring his classroom activity and conducting regular focus groups .
The parties agreed that Mrs Powell’s belief in Christianity was a protected characteristic under s.10(3)(a) Equality Act 2010 . The ET did not accept Mr Spargo as a comparator for the purposes of s.23 EqA, identifying material differences between the two cases . Mrs Powell’s procedural complaints did not support an inference that she was dismissed because of her religious belief . The ET concluded that she had been dismissed because she had allowed herself to be drawn into a conversation in which she expressed her personal religious views; those views, in particular on homosexuality, had caused the learners to become upset; she had allowed the situation to escalate and had lost control of the class; and her conduct had provoked complaints not only from learners but also from parents .
As to s.13 Equality Act 2010 and Article 9 ECHR:
“… the right to manifest a religious belief is not absolute, it is subject to and qualified by Article 9(2). A reasonable limitation may be placed upon the manifestation of religious belief in the workplace, in particular for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. Proselytisation in the workplace is an area where it has been recognised that it may be legitimate to limit the manifestation of religious belief, since there is obvious scope for that to impact adversely on colleagues or service users. The claimant did not have an unfettered right under Article 9 to seek to persuade her colleagues and learners to her religious belief” .