27/01/2013 18:42 GMT | Updated 29/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Atheist Teacher Dismissed Over Refusal to Conduct Religious Assembly in School

Please read this article in full before jumping to any conclusions, hear me out. An atheist teacher has been fired from a state school because he asked not to be involved in organising religious assemblies. The school said it respected his atheist beliefs, and he was free to exercise those beliefs in his own time, but he cannot pick and chose which school activities he will get involved in.

A statement by the teacher, released through his lawyer, said it was "his sincere belief that there is no such thing as God, and that he opposes all forms of organised religion. He cannot, in all conscience, be involved in an activity that promotes religion, much less an act of 'worship'. He simply asked his employer to accommodate his sincere beliefs, and is disappointed that this has resulted in his dismissal."

However, the head teacher of the school said, "We respect his atheistic beliefs, and he is free to exercise those beliefs, but it must not interfere with his duties as a teacher. Our equality policy is clear. We cannot allow our staff to refuse to take part in religious assemblies just because they disagree with religion. It is demeaning those pupils from a faith background and makes them feel like second-class citizens. We are under a legal duty to provide a religious assembly to pupils, and we expect all our staff to follow the law."

The Religious Alliance has supported the teacher's dismissal. A spokesman said: "When you are paid to do a job by the state, you have to follow the state's rules. Parliament passed the law that requires religious assemblies in schools and a teacher shouldn't be allowed to opt out just because he is an atheist. What's next? Will an atheist teacher be allowed to refuse to teach a child maths, just because that child is religious?"

But the British Atheist Council has hit out at the teacher's dismissal as "an appalling attack on freedom of conscience". A spokeswoman said: "There were plenty of teachers at the school willing to provide a religious assembly for pupils, no assembly would have been cancelled just because this one teacher asked not to be involved. To force this teacher out of his career is a huge over reaction - and speaks of something deeper, an anti-atheist undercurrent."

Who do you agree with? The school? The Religious Alliance? The British Atheist Council? I ask because the imagined story I outline above (and, yes, it is only an imagined story) fairly well mirrors that of Lillian Ladele, the Christian registrar who was dismissed from working at Islington Borough Council because she asked not be involved in the registration of same-sex civil partnerships. I say "mirrors" it because I have reversed the central belief which lies at the heart of the matter. In Lillian's case, it was her Christian belief that marriage is only for a man and a woman. In the scenario above, it is the atheist belief that there's no God and religion is wrong.

Lillian was employed by a public authority, Islington Borough Council. The council is required by law to provide same-sex civil partnership registrations to the public. But that doesn't mean every single registrar has to be involved. Not a single same-sex couple was denied, or would ever have been denied, a civil partnership registration because of Lillian's objection. The suggestion that this would have opened the floodgates to gay people being refused any public service is simply untrue. Yet, Lillian was forced out of her job - in fact her career - for asking a very reasonable question: I have a genuine contentious objection, it doesn't impact anyone else, so can it please be accommodated? The Civil Partnership Act does allow for that kind of flexibility - just as education law does not require all teachers to take part in religious assemblies.

I suspect some people's reaction to Lillian's case has nothing to do with the precise facts or the intricacies of the law. Rather, it's that some people don't like Lillian's essential belief about marriage; they don't think she should be allowed to hold the belief in public; they don't think the belief is worthy of respect in a modern democratic society; and they don't like anyone who sticks up for her. For some people, that's what all this comes down to: I don't like Lillian, her beliefs, or her supporters, therefore she ought to lose her job.

Not everyone thinks like that, but some do. Others are just going along with the crowd, others are keeping their head down for fear of being labelled as homophobic, others are confused by the falsehoods and untruths that have been circulated about this case, others couldn't care one way or the other. But I hope the scenario of the atheist teacher helps others to pause and have a genuine think about how we treat liberty of conscience in this country. If at the start of reading this post you were beginning to be outraged by how the school had treated the atheist teacher, then you ought to be appalled by how Lillian was treated. The true test of tolerance lies in how you react to the beliefs you don't like, not the ones you do.