Dismissed Evangelical Vicar Fails in Rare ‘Marriage Discrimination’ Claim

Every employer presumably knows that sex and race discrimination are unlawful, but fewer may be aware that marriage and civil partnership are also protected characteristics. An unusual case on point concerned a vicar who claimed that his dismissal was an act of discrimination arising from the acrimonious breakdown of his marriage.

ChurchThe ethos of the vicar’s church was conservative and evangelical and tensions arose after the breakdown of his marriage was played out in a very public way. There were various other concerns about his conduct and, after attempts at mediation failed, the church’s senior leadership team resigned en masse. After much soul-searching, the trustees of the charity that ran the church decided to dismiss him.

The vicar subsequently launched Employment Tribunal (ET) proceedings, claiming that his dismissal was unfair and amounted to marriage discrimination. Section 8 of the Equality Act 2010 renders it unlawful to treat those who are married or in a civil partnership less favourably than those who are single.

In dismissing his claim, however, the ET found that the reason for his dismissal was not in any way because of his marriage, his separation or his potentially imminent divorce. The decision was entirely because of the irretrievable breakdown in his relationship with the trustees and their loss of trust and confidence in him.

Rejecting his challenge to that outcome, the Employment Appeal Tribunal noted that it had not been established either that his dismissal was significantly influenced by a belief that a minister cannot continue to serve if his marriage breaks down or that he would have kept his job had he been single.

Although his separation had contributed to the trustees’ loss of trust and confidence in him, it was part of the background or context of the matter, rather than part of the reason for dismissal. The ET was therefore entitled to find on the evidence that this was not a case of marriage discrimination.