In a ruling which gives useful guidance to employers on the role of religion in the workplace, a devoutly Christian doctor who was sacked by an NHS Trust after refusing to obey an instruction not to use religious language in his professional communications has failed to prove that his dismissal was unfair.
The consultant paediatrician had been told by his employer to ‘keep his beliefs to himself’ after he sent a prayer by St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit movement, to colleagues in a motivational email. His communications with other staff in his multi-cultural, multi-faith department had included poems and Biblical quotations which some found ‘strange’ and ‘a bit bizarre’.
The former clinical director was suspended after a nurse raised a grievance, claiming that he had undermined her. Whilst he was cleared of any misconduct in relation to that complaint, the panel recommended that he should keep his personal views and beliefs private and not impose them on colleagues.
However, the doctor described that recommendation as ‘taking the biscuit’ and accused the trust of bullying him. In a letter to the trust’s chief executive, he wrote: “I do not have any opinions other than fairly orthodox Christian beliefs. It is still not against the law in this country. I have never in any way tried to force my opinion on anyone.”
The dispute was referred to an independent review panel of the Royal College of Paediatrics which found that the doctor’s use of religious language was ‘not appropriate’ in a professional setting and recommended that he ‘refrain from using religious references in his professional communications’.
However, when instructed to comply with that recommendation by the Trust, the doctor stated: “I cannot agree to this. Our language is replete with allegory and metaphor – much of it is with a religious connotation. I am not a fanatic. I am not a proselytiser. My purpose is purely expressive and not religious at all.”
The dispute came to a head when an internal disciplinary panel found that the doctor had ‘failed to normalise working relations’ and ‘failed to obey a lawful and reasonable instruction’ by refusing to accept the independent recommendations in their entirety. He was dismissed with three months’ pay in lieu of notice after the panel found that there had been a complete breakdown of trust and confidence between him and the Trust.
The doctor’s claims of unfair dismissal, religious discrimination and victimisation were rejected by an employment tribunal which found that he had been dismissed for failing to obey a reasonable instruction and that there was no evidence that the Trust had been prejudiced against him on religious grounds.
In dismissing the doctor’s appeal against that decision, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that, although the use of religious language may well have been only one aspect of his general communication style, it was ‘the sticking point’ on which he would not accept the independent panel’s recommendations.
For the good of the hospital’s paediatric department, the Trust had been ‘surely entitled to insist’ that he accept those recommendations in full. The employment tribunal’s factual conclusions were open to it on the evidence; there had been no error of law and perversity of reasoning had not been established.