On Tuesday, a panel of judges at the European Court of Human Rights refused permission for the Lillian Ladele case to be appealed to the Grand Chamber (yes, it really is called that). Lillian is a Christian from the UK who believes that marriage is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman. She worked at Islington Borough Council since 1992 and became a marriage registrar at the Council in 2002. But she was forced out of her job after same-sex civil partnerships were legalised in December 2005. She claimed religious discrimination and her case has rumbled on for several years, but this week's decision by European judges to refuse her appeal means her long-running battle has reached the end of the road.
By way of background, Lillian had a conscientious objection to officiating at same-sex civil partnerships. She asked her employers for a reasonable accommodation of her beliefs. At first, her employers allowed her to informally swap shifts with colleagues. During that time, the registration of same-sex civil partnerships ran smoothly. In fact, Islington council said it was able to provide, and I quote, a "first class" civil partnership service without requiring Lillian's involvement. But some of her colleagues didn't like it. They mounted a campaign against her, demanding that managers force her to officiate at same-sex civil partnerships. This is, after all, trendy Islington we're talking about. They don't tolerate 'others' in Islington. Managers caved in to the pressure.
They unilaterally designated her to be a civil partnership registrar without her consent, even though they knew this would put her in the impossible situation of choosing between her faith and her job. She told her employer that officiating at same-sex civil partnerships would conflict with her sincerely held religious beliefs. Disciplinary action was taken against her, and the whole matter ended up at an employment tribunal. In 2008 the tribunal unanimously ruled that Lillian Ladele had suffered religious discrimination. However, that was later overturned on appeal and that finding was upheld as her case made its way through the British courts. Last year her case was heard by the European Court of Human Rights. In January this year judges at Strasbourg found against her by a majority five-two decision. And now she has been refused an appeal to the Grand Chamber, which brings her legal case to an end.
The case has been debated many times, in many places. The respected legal affairs journalist, Joshua Rozenberg, gives a fair analysis of her case. I've written previously on this blog about the wider issues relating to liberty of conscience. But under the mountain of legal documents, court rulings, news coverage and opinion articles, lies a woman who's career has been ruined because she dared to believe in traditional marriage. And something very important has been forgotten. She was treated like an outcast at Islington because of her stance.
This was laid out in the original tribunal's findings, from which I quote below. The appalling way in which she was treated is something that has been acknowledged by the higher courts too. Even Islington Council itself accepts that Lillian was treated badly. But neither Islington nor subsequent court rulings say any of it amounted to religious discrimination. So, yes, she was ill treated at work because of her beliefs about marriage; but, no, that's not religious discrimination. That's the tails-I-win-heads-you-lose world of modern human rights law which appears to protect everyone unless you are a conventional Christian with traditional beliefs about marriage.
Here is a key finding of the original Tribunal (the whole ruling is here):
"[Islington Council's actions] disregarded and displayed no respect for Ms Ladele's genuinely held religious beliefs. As such they amount to a violation of Ms Ladele's dignity and created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her on the grounds of her religion or belief. In relation to these matters it is the unanimous judgment of the Tribunal that the complaint of harassment succeeds."
A year later the Employment Appeal Tribunal overturned the finding of religious discrimination and harassment, but nevertheless said:
"There were clearly some unsatisfactory features about the way the council handled this matter. The claimant's beliefs were strong and genuine and not all of management treated them with the sensitivity which they might have done."
It also accepted that Islington had acted in an improper, unreasonable and extraordinary manner (paragraphs 62 and 77of the full judgment) but decided that this did not amount to religious discrimination. Even Islington Council itself, cock-a-hoop to have reversed the ruling, admitted it had been a bit nasty to Lillian. John Gilbert speaking for Islington Council said: "In some ways, the way in which she was treated was not ideal. We have to admit that, and... err... umm... we're sorry for it." The "err" and the "umm" says it all.
During the hearing in Strasbourg last year, Lillian's barrister Dinah Rose QC said her client had been used as "an instrument" of social change by her former employer Islington Borough Council. She warned the judges that the submission from the United Kingdom's Government entails...
"...permitting Islington to treat Miss Ladele as an instrument for the propagation of its public message. And we submit that to treat a person, an individual, as a means and not an aim in themselves, is fundamentally incompatible with individual human dignity and incompatible with convention rights."
But now the European Court of Human Rights, which is supposed to protect individual citizens from being trampled on by powerful nation states, has turned its back on Lillian. She's now a marriage martyr, but I doubt she'll be the last.