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Avoiding this recipe for disaster

Eggs, flour, sugar, butter, a picture of Burt and Ernie from Sesame Street, and a pro-gay marriage message. It should have resulted in a cake but turned into a bad case of PR and a costly court case for Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland.

A judged ruled against them for their acceptance and subsequent refusal to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage message.

The company had cited that “it was at odds with our beliefs and with what the Bible teaches”.

However, as the trial concluded the judge said that cancelling the cake order was “direct discrimination for which there can be no justification”. There is a statutory exemption regarding an organisation’s religious belief. However, this did not come into play in this instance because the bakery was a purely commercial venture and had no reference to furthering religious values in its Memorandum and Articles of Association.

The bakery was ordered to pay £500 in compensation and more significantly tens of thousands of pounds in legal costs.

This is by no means the first time that the religious views of staff and business owners have landed a company in court and/or the papers.

In 2008 Cornish Bed and Breakfast owners refused lodgings to a gay couple in a civil partnership based on a “religiously-informed judgement of conscience”. Ending up before a judge, they lost their case in the County Court, Court of Appeal, and Supreme Court.

In 2006, a BA employee took her case to court after she was told she could not wear a crucifix around her neck at work. She lost her case in six UK courts before triumphing in the European Court of Human Rights. However at the same time, European judges ruled that three other UK workers had not had their rights violated (these included another case of a cross necklace, a worker fired for refusing to give sex therapy advice to gay couples and a council registrar who refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.)
In 2013 Marks and Spencer found itself having to apologise when a Muslim shop assistant refused (politely) to scan a bottle of champagne through the till, saying the customer would need to wait for another member of staff to become available. In this instance Marks and Spencer said that they try to work closely with staff with strong religious beliefs so that they are not put in a position where they are unable to fulfil their duties. When questioned, some of the other big retailers adopted a similar stance while others took a harder line.

It is plain to see that religious views and practices in the work place can be a minefield. However, wherever reasonable (and as the court cases demonstrate, this is an important point!) it makes sense to try to accommodate the needs of a diverse workforce. The benefits to an organisation can be a larger talent pool from which to select staff, and a more motivated, loyal workforce. Examples of good practice could include:

  • Weighing up religious matters on a case by case basis, and engaging in discussion with affected employees.
  • Having policies that outline how the company expects employees to behave with respect to religion and belief.
  • Facilitating religious practices by granting annual leave when requested for these purposes or allowing flexible working.
  • Clearly stating what a job involves during the recruitment process to minimise the chance of conflict later on.
  • Considering the purposes behind a dress code, and whether exceptions can be made.

It’s not easy and business owners/managers need to carefully consider the reputation of the business, the impact of decisions upon staff, upon customers and upon other interested parties when tackling these issues. For help getting the balance right between business need and religious sensibility call the HR Dept.