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Legal Corner: Vicar was not discriminated against due to marriage breakdown

24th Jul 2020
Legal Corner: Vicar was not discriminated against due to marriage breakdown

(Credit: DPP Law/FlickrCommons)

The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from a variety of forms of discrimination — perhaps one of the lesser-known is discrimination on the grounds of one’s marital status.

That was the issue in the recent case of The Reverend Jonathan Gould v St John’s Downshire Hill (UKEAT/0002/20/BA).

Rev Gould was the vicar of an evangelical Christian church in Hampstead, London. After commencing employment in 1995, he subsequently married and had four children.

However, he and his wife experienced marital difficulties from about 2011, which worsened in 2014 to the point where Rev Gould would discuss his personal issues with members of his congregation. By 2015, they had formally separated with a view to divorcing in due course.

During the same period of time, there were tensions between Reverend Gould and the Leadership Team of the church, who felt that Rev Gould was unilaterally making decisions without their input.

Other staff complained about his behaviour and one employee resigned, leading to an investigation by the Leadership Team — however, rather than address the issues, Rev Gould sought to minimise them. In addition, he had sought to preach about marriage from the pulpit at a time when his personal difficulties were well known, leading to concerns from the congregation.

He was offered the opportunity of a sabbatical, which he flatly refused, and so was asked to resign. He refused, and so the entire Leadership Team felt compelled to resign instead. An investigation was conducted by a Bishop in a nearby area; he recommended mediation, and although this took place (at significant cost), it was unsuccessful.

The Church, therefore, decided that it had no option but to dismiss Rev Gould in August 2016 on the basis that there had been a complete breakdown in trust between employee and employer. His appeal against dismissal was subsequently dismissed.

Rev Gould brought a claim in the Employment Tribunal alleging that he had been unfairly dismissed as a result of the breakdown in his marriage.

The Employment Tribunal found that there had been concerns raised by some members of the congregation about the fact that Rev Gould was not ‘practising what he preached’ in relation to marriage, but also found that there was clear evidence of a significant breakdown in relationships as a result of Rev Gould’s management style and behaviour.

The tribunal concluded that Rev Gould’s marriage difficulties were not the cause of his dismissal, but simply formed the background to the issues which arose.

In addition, the decision to dismiss was not taken at the point that Rev Gould separated from his wife, but much later on after significant time and money had been expended on attempts to salvage the employment relationship via mediation. The tribunal found that there was no discussion about his marriage in the final meeting when the decision was taken to dismiss Rev Gould.

Rev Gould appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal. They made clear that if a person is treated less favourably because of marital difficulties, or a breakdown in an employee’s marriage, that may well be marriage discrimination.

Here, Rev Gould would need to demonstrate that the behaviour relied upon by the Church would not have caused his dismissal had he not been married or had marital difficulties, or show that the Church had believed that the nature of marriage was such that a marital breakdown meant a vicar could not continue in office.

On the basis of the facts, as found, it was clear that Rev Gould could not demonstrate that either assertion was correct. On that basis, his appeal failed.

Whilst this case did not fundamentally change or amend the well-known principles of discrimination law, it was an interesting reminder of how marriage discrimination (which is not as common as other forms of discrimination) might work in practice.

Safia Tharoo
Barrister, 40 Bedford Row, London

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