Mr. McFarlane, of Bristol (UK), was employed as a relationship counselor by the Avon branch of Relate, a charity that provides relationship support including counseling for couples, families, sex therapy, mediation and training courses. Upon joining the organization in 2003, McFarlane signed the companies Equal Opportunities policy, which ensured that no people would receive less favorable treatment on the basis of characteristics such as sexual orientation.
McFarlane successfully counseled same-sex couples, as long as sexual issues were not involved. But McFarlane was clear that if sexual issues were involved, he would not be able to carry out counseling due to his religious beliefs. In 2008, McFarlane was dismissed from his post after he once again indicated that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples on sexual issues. McFarlane then brought the case to the Employment Tribunal for wrongful dismissal and discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. After a series of dismissals, appeals, and some high profile media attention, the case has now been brought to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which was established in 2007 to promote and enforce equality and non-discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales.
Lobby group Christian Concern has backed McFarlane, along with three other cases including a Christian nurse who was moved to a paperwork role after refusing to remove a necklace bearing a crucifix. Christian Concern is dedicated to putting a stop to discrimination against Christians in the workplace.
However, there are other sides of the story to consider in McFarlane’s case. A spokesman for a gay and lesbian charity condemned the news that McFarlane was taking his case to European court. The spokesman was disturbed that the EHRC might suggest that any public servant “might have the right to pick and choose who they provide services to.” In addition, the Spokesman added that “gay taxpayers currently contribute more than 40 billion euros a year to the cost of Britain’s public services and no member of Britain’s 3.7 million lesbian, gay and bisexual population should be deprived of exactly the same access to them as other.”
We’ve seen cases like this in the United States as well. In Bruff v. No. Mississippi Health Services (2001), an employee objected to counseling homosexual individuals on religious grounds and requested that she be excused from that duty. The courts found for the employer, citing that the accommodation requested would have created an undue hardship. How an undue hardship is defined is fact-specific, and depends on the case at hand. However, in the United States, if a workplace has the resources to excuse someone from a duty for religious reasons – their request should be accommodated.
In an inclusive workplace, how does an employer deal with conflicting identities – identities that they’re working to support? Although conflict between lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and those who identify as religious can be common in some workplaces, it’s important to remember that these identities are not always at odds. In fact, a Barna Group study found that 60% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals describe faith as being “very important” in their lives. The important thing to remember is that although you cannot change what an employee believes, you can direct and mandate respectful behavior. Carefully written discrimination policies and Diversity and Inclusion goals can help avoid these conflicts in the workplace.
Coming up, Tanenbaum will be discussing these issues in more detail at the 2011 Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Dallas. This year, we’re going to dig a bit deeper. We’ve invited attendees to come prepared with their company policies. The practicum will allow participants to work together, find gaps in their policies, and share better practices around accommodations, legal obligations, and successful diversity and inclusion efforts. We hope to see you there!