Removal of non-executive director for expressing faith-based objection to same-sex adoption was not discriminatory
The Court of Appeal has held in Page v NHS Trust Development Authority that a non-executive director (NED) of an NHS and social care trust who did not have his term of office renewed after he expressed his faith-based objection to the adoption of children by same-sex couples, was not discriminated against on the ground of his religious beliefs.
Mr Page's fixed-term appointment as a NED of an NHS Trust was due to expire in June 2016. He also carried out work as a lay magistrate and, in 2014 was part of a panel hearing an application by a same-sex couple to adopt a young child. During the course of this hearing he expressed his views to his fellow magistrates who complained, and he was reprimanded for his conduct. The disciplinary action was reported in the media, but Mr Page did not inform the Trust about it, and when it found out, it warned him that the public expression of his views could undermine confidence, and instructed him to inform it of any further media interest. However, Mr Page continued to engage with the media. He was removed from the magistracy in March 2016, and the Trust told him that his term of office would not be renewed. Mr Page brought claims of direct and indirect discrimination against the Trust, arguing that he had been removed from office due to his religious beliefs. He also argued that his removal as a NED breached his Article 9 right to freedom of religion.
The Court found that the NHS Trust had taken disciplinary action against Mr Page, not because he was a Christian or because of his belief that it was always in a child's best interests to be brought up by a mother and father, but because he had expressed the latter belief in the media in circumstances which, on the tribunal's findings, justified the action taken. As far as Article 9 was concerned, the tribunal had been entitled to find that, even if Mr Page's rights under the Article were engaged, any interference with those rights was justified. The Court agreed that the NHS Authority had a genuine and reasonable concern that Mr Page's expression in the media of his views about homosexuality risked impairing the willingness of gay people with mental health difficulties to engage with its services, and its actions in response were proportionate. The Trust had acted as it did because of the manner in which Mr Page expressed his beliefs, by appearing in the press and on television without informing the Trust when he had been asked to do so, and not because of his beliefs.
Take note: The decision in Page emphasises that the freedom to express religious, or any other beliefs, is not unlimited. As the Court pointed out, there are circumstances in which it was right to expect Christians who worked for an institution, especially if they held a high-profile position, to accept some limitations on how they expressed in public their beliefs on matters of particular sensitivity. A fair balance has to be struck between the rights of the individual and the legitimate interests of the institution for which they worked, and in this case the Court concluded that the tribunal had been entitled to conclude that the authority had not acted unlawfully.