The employment tribunal in the case of Zelda De Groen found that she was discriminated against because of her lack of belief in Orthodox Judaism. It also said that she was treated as she was because of the religious beliefs of the nursery.
There is a limited protection from the rigours of the Equality Act 2010 for religions. The act allows for an employer to demand that an employee has certain characteristics, if these characteristics are an “occupational requirement” for the job.
There must be such a requirement for it to be imposed on the grounds of religious beliefs and the application of the requirement must be a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
This derives from the terms of the terms of the EU Equal Treatment Directive.
There is an exception under the law but this mainly applies to ministers of religion rather than persons in other capacities albeit operating in a religious environment, such as teachers.
The tribunal decided that “the occupational requirement must be connected directly to the claimant’s work” and went so far as to say that “lifestyles and personal beliefs are almost always excluded from the scope of an occupational requirement”.
This potentially has serious implications for Jewish and other religious educational establishments keen to protect their particular views of lifestyles.
All cases must of, course, be examined on their facts. The facts as found by the tribunal are stark (especially the suggestion that the teacher lie about her co-habitation).
One point working against the nursery was that its managers had indicated that it would consider alternative duties for the teacher but did not follow this through.
The nursery further could not demonstrate that the Ms de Groen’s views posed a threat to its economic wellbeing, as it had hinted they would.
Also the nursery had not set down a policy on conduct although it had a clear dress code. There were several procedural lapses by the nursery, too, in dismissing Ms de Groen.
The tribunal found that in these circumstances occupational requirement could not justify her dismissal. Besides direct discrimination on the grounds of religion, the nursery was found to be liable for indirect religious discrimination, sex discrimination and harassment. The amount of compensation will be determined at a later stage and could be high.
The case clearly has wide implications for the Orthodox community in that it cannot insist on teachers living the lifestyle it would want to instil in its children.
John Bowers QC, Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford, and an expert in employment law