Counselor wins reinstatement, but on procedural grounds
A British employment tribunal has ruled that a Christian counselor was wrongfully dismissed after he expressed reservations about offering sexual advice to homosexuals, but the judges rejected his claim of religious discrimination.
The ruling by the Bristol Employment Tribunal in the United Kingdom on Gary McFarlane, a relationship counselor with the company Relate Avon, is a disorganized precedent that should be addressed, according to Andrea Minichiello Williams of the Christian Legal Center, which worked on McFarlane's case.
"The law is in a confused state; in the case of Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar, the court held that Christian belief must give way to the rights of same sex couples; but in the case of Gary McFarlane there is a finding of wrongful dismissal," Williams said. "The courts and public are confused; we call on the government to recognize the legitimate expression of conscience by Christians in the area of sexual orientation and provide protection where necessary."
The legal center said McFarlane had worked at Relate since 2003 and had encountered "hostility" at the organization. "Although Mr.McFarlane had never had to provide sex therapy to a same-sex couple, he thought that if the situation did arise, he would be able to discuss his Christian views with his supervisors so that his position could be discussed and if necessary accommodated," according to the legal center report. Instead, after a letter circulated at Relate that accused McFarlane of being a "homophobe," he was suspended in January 2008 and dismissed two months later.
"If I were a Muslim, this would not have happened. But Christians seem to have fewer and fewer rights," McFarlane said.
The legal center cited a recent court opinion that found Muslims imprisoned for sex offenses may opt out of therapy. "It is important to note that Mr. McFarlane has never refused to counsel a same-sex couple; he merely raised the potential conflict between his Christian faith and homosexual conduct," Williams said. "It is deeply disturbing that the mere expression of religious belief with an inability to give unqualified support to sexual orientation issues means that a Christian can be dismissed with no attempt to provide suitable accommodation for his or her beliefs. The law preventing religious discrimination against Christians is in danger of becoming a dead letter," Williams said.
The tribunal, however, said, "The claimant was not treated as he was because of his Christian faith, but because (Relate) believed that he would not comply with its policies." Mike Judge of the Christian Institute said the conclusion means the laws "are not being applied equally." Relate had stated in support of its decision, "His religious faith is not relevant; it is the application of it to the equal opportunities policy."
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