In recent times, there have been a number of high-profile cases which have illustrated the ongoing tension between sexual orientation and religion and belief rights, which can create particular difficulty for employees or office holders who are carrying out functions for a public service and are bound by a duty to uphold the Equality Act 2010.
Towards the end of last month, in Page v The Lord Chancellor, the Court of Appeal ruled that Mr Page, a Christian magistrate, did not suffer victimisation when he was removed from office after speaking to the press, expressing disapproval of adoption by same-sex couples.
In July 2014, while sitting as a member of the family panel, Mr Page expressed views, based on his Christian beliefs, regarding the appropriateness of the adoption of a child by a same-sex couple. As a result, he refused to sign an order approving such an adoption and was reprimanded and required to attend training.
On 11th March 2015, Mr Page appeared on the television programme BBC Breakfast News, stating that it was his responsibility as a magistrate to have the child’s best interests as his main consideration. In light of this, he believed that it would be better if the child’s adoptive parents were a man and a woman. This led to further disciplinary proceedings against him which resulted in his removal from the magistracy. It was found that his comments on the BBC had brought the magistracy into disrepute because he had expressed a personal view on same-sex adoption which did not reflect the law, and that his conduct had not been in accordance with his judicial oath.
Mr Page brought proceedings to the Employment Tribunal claiming that he had been victimised and that his Article 10 (freedom of expression) rights under the ECHR had been infringed. These claims were dismissed, and the decision was upheld by the EAT. In response, Mr Page decided to appeal to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. The court reached its decision having heard only Mr Page's submissions and refused permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The court concluded that the only genuine issue on appeal in this case was whether Mr Page had been removed as a magistrate because he had complained about earlier disciplinary proceedings against him. This was held not to be the reason for his removal. His removal was based on the fact that he had publicly declared that in dealing with cases involving adoption by same-sex couples he would proceed not on the basis of the law or the evidence. Instead, his decision would be on the basis of his own preconceived beliefs about such adoptions. His removal was deemed to be entirely lawful and involved no breach of his human rights.
In summary, the Court of Appeal’s judgment acknowledges the principle that members of the judiciary are entitled to maintain strong beliefs, which are often deeply rooted in religious faith. However, it sets out a clear message that in exercising their functions, these beliefs must be reserved so far as necessary, to ensure that they proceed only on the basis of the law and the evidence.