It is direct marriage discrimination to treat someone less favourably than another person because of their marital status. In Gould v St John’s Downshire Hill, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that dismissing a minister following the breakdown of his marriage could constitute discrimination, although it did not in this particular case.
Mr Gould had been the vicar at St John’s, a conservative and evangelical church, from 1995. He married in 1997 but by 2011 it became known that he and his wife were having marital difficulties. By 2014, things had deteriorated to the point whereby both parties were openly sharing information about their problems with members of the congregation. In 2015, his wife moved out of the family home.
Mr Gould was dismissed by the leadership team at the church in 2016, citing a breakdown in trust and confidence relating to governance issues, including certain property transactions. He believed, however, that he had been dismissed because of the breakdown of his marriage and brought claims for unfair dismissal and direct marriage discrimination.
His claim was initially rejected by a tribunal in 2017 on the basis that it did not relate to a protected characteristic. This decision was overturned by the EAT which remitted the case back to the tribunal for reconsideration.
Section 8 Equality Act 2010 states that:
“(1) A person has the protected characteristic of marriage and civil partnership if the person is married or is a civil partner.
(2) In relation to the protected characteristic of marriage and civil partnership:
(a) A reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a person who is married or is a civil partner;
(b) A reference to persons who share a protected characteristic is a reference to persons who are married or are civil partners”.
Dismissing his claim of unfair dismissal, the tribunal held that although the breakdown of Mr Gould’s marriage provided the backdrop as to why the leadership team had lost trust and confidence in him, the reason for his dismissal had nothing to do with his marriage difficulties.
Rather, the reason was “entirely because of the irretrievable breakdown in the relationship between the claimant and the trustees…certain members of staff and other members of the congregation.” It therefore held that the reason for dismissal was “some other substantial reason” within the meaning of section 98(1) Employment Rights Act 1996 and that it was fair under section 98(4) of the 1996 Act.
As the same reasoning applied to the direct marriage discrimination claim the tribunal also rejected that complaint.
The EAT held that had the leadership team been significantly influenced by a belief that a minister cannot continue to serve if their marriage breaks down when they decided to dismiss Mr Gould, then his discrimination claim might have succeeded. Likewise, it might have succeeded if he could have shown that unmarried ministers would have been treated more favourably when behaving in a similar way.
However, that was not what the tribunal had found on the facts and they had been entitled to do so. As a matter of law, therefore, this was not therefore a case of marriage discrimination.
As Mr Gould had premised his appeal against the finding that the dismissal was fair on the basis that the tribunal had committed an error of law in relation to the discrimination claim, his unfair dismissal claim therefore also failed.
The EAT’s judgment provides a refresher of the legal tests involved in claims for discrimination due to marital status.