The Employment Tribunal had to consider the rather emotive case of Pendleton v (1) Derbyshire County Council and (2)The Governing Body of Glebe Junior School UKEAT/0238/15.
Mrs Pendleton had been employed by the school as a teacher since 2001. She was highly regarded by teachers, parents and children alike, and had an unblemished record. She was also a committed Anglican Christian. In 2013, her husband of 11 years, who was a Head Teacher at a neighbouring school, was arrested and subsequently convicted of downloading indecent images of children and voyeurism.
He was sentenced to 10 months in prison. Mrs Pendleton was completely shocked by the charges and in the immediate aftermath of the arrest took some time off work and also left the marital home to stay with her parents. She was reassured by her Head Teacher that her job would remain open for her. Mrs Pendleton decided, after much reflection, that her faith required her to honour her marriage vows, specifically her commitment ‘for better or worse’, and stay with her husband, so long as she was satisfied that he had demonstrated unequivocal repentance.
The school’s stance, however, evolved from one of support to concern – specifically, that if Mrs Pendleton continued to support her husband, it could be seen as condoning his behaviour and would lead to disciplinary action. Mrs Pendleton was therefore invited to a meeting at County Hall where she was specifically asked if she intended to stay with her husband, and told that if she did, there would be consequences. She asked if she was being invited to choose between her marriage vows and her career, and was met with shrugs and raised eyebrows.
Mrs Pendleton was thereafter charged with gross misconduct, namely, by making a choice to continue a relationship with her husband in full knowledge of the offences he had admitted to, her actions do not uphold the trust in the profession. Mrs Pendleton made clear she did not wish to leave the school and jeopardise her career but considered she had done nothing wrong, was a separate person to her husband, had an exemplary track record in safeguarding and did not present a risk. It was put to her that there were concerns from parents and other stakeholders, but these were never investigated. She was dismissed and her appeal against that decision failed.
Mrs Pendleton therefore brought a claim of unfair dismissal in the employment tribunal. She also argued that she had been discriminated against due to her Anglican Christian faith. The employment tribunal had no hesitation in finding that her dismissal had been unfair. The tribunal concluded the real reason for her dismissal was the school’s view that she had exercised poor judgement in electing to stand by her husband despite the fact that he was a convicted sex offender.
That was not a substantial reason capable of justifying dismissal and did not relate to her conduct. Moreover, they decided that the decision to dismiss was predetermined, the investigation was woefully inadequate, and little or no account was taken of Mrs Pendleton’s unblemished career. However, Mrs Pendleton’s claim that she had been indirectly discriminated against due to her faith was not upheld. It was accepted that she held a belief that her marriage vows were sacrosanct.
It was also accepted that the school had applied a policy of dismissing those who chose not to end a relationship with a person convicted of making indecent images of children and voyeurism. However, the tribunal accepted the evidence of the school that they would have dismissed anyone in Mrs Pendleton’s circumstances irrespective of whether they held a belief in the sanctity of their marriage vows.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal found however that the tribunal had wrongly applied the test of indirect discrimination to this case, and concluded that Mrs Pendleton, and those who shared her religious views, were clearly at a particular disadvantage when this policy was applied to them due to the conflict between their views and the policy. This was all that Mrs Pendleton was required to show. The school then had to demonstrate that its policy was justified as being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal determined that they had not done so – no evidence had been provided to show this, and it was clear that the school had not considered any alternative sanctions to dismissal – which it would have had to do to demonstrate how and why dismissal was proportionate in this case. Therefore, Mrs Pendleton’s claim of indirect religious discrimination also succeeded.
This is not the end of the saga however – the school is in the process of appealing this decision to the Court of Appeal. Regardless, this case is a good example of the potential tensions that can arise between an individual’s religious views and their profession, and the care which is required in considering how best to balance the two.
Safia Tharoo, Barrister, 42 Bedford Row, London