Sunday, 7 December 2008

On "Unfair" Dismissal

Some time ago, I read a story in the Mail (relax - it was on a pub table, and I only read it to practice rational argument whilst angry), about a man who had been fired from Relate, for refusing to give gay couples psychosexual counselling on account of his Christian faith.

I didn't really think I'd hear anything more about it. I did have a conversation with J in the pub, about whether we'd actually want someone to be forced to advise us about our sex life when they felt everything they were recommending was a sin, especially considered that J is mortally shy about anything to do with 'down there', and would rather not discuss it with anyone, thank-you-very-much. Basically, if a couple is going to counselling, they are potentially vulnerable and need to be able to trust the counsellor and feel comfortable with them in order to work out their own problems. This is, obviously, not going to happen if the person who is supposed to be helping you through relationship troubles believes that the whole relationship is wrong. And believe me, we can tell when people disapprove.

However, we now, happily, have laws in the UK, stating that it is illegal to deny people goods or services on the basis of sexual orientation (gender identity is not mentioned, but I suspect and hope would be covered under laws against gender discrimination). So this would indeed seem to be an open/shut case. Relate have worked with gay couples at least since this counsellow joined, so it is not comparable to the case of Lillian Ladele, a registrar who was found to be wrongfully dismissed for refusing to conduct civil partnerships. It was found that she took the job before civil partnerships had been allowed by law, and so when these were introduced, she was required to perform ceremonies she would not have consented to perform. The was found to have been wrongfully dismissed, so a precedent is set (although this case is currently under appeal, and will hopefully be overturned).

Gary McFarlane had previously worked with gay couples, but it was only after having received psychosexual training, and beginning to work with couples within that context that the problems arose. This seems to me to be the main issue: if one counsels an adult relationship, one may take for granted that, 99% of the time, a part of that relationship is sexual, and helping the relationship is "endorsing that lifestyle", as Mr McFarlane put it. So why is it only the sexual counselling part that he has problems with? This isn't a moral decision, made because he cannot in all conscience encourage homosexuality. He is happy to perform one part of his duties, but not another, because, eww, he will have to talk to two men or two women about shagging.

I don't want someone who has a fundamental problem with my relationship advising me on how to save it. Neither do I want to be denied the chance to save it because of who the relationship is with. And neither do I want someone to be forced to do something against their conscience, even if I find their beliefs abhorrent. I generally believe that compromises can be found, whereby someone can receive training on how to deal with people they may not agree with, or another person take certain cases.

However, all this sets a dangerous precedent. If someone can claim exemption from part of their job for religious grounds, then this can theoretically apply to anything, and renders completely pointless any anti-discrimination policy. What happens with small businesses with no employees that feel capable of serving gay people? Already, one Christian policeman has been fired for sending emails to his colleagues with homophobic Bible verses, after apparently being "bombarded" with posters advertising Gay History Month. If he cannot even cope with posters advertising the fact that gay people exist, then how on earth is he supposed to be able to protect gay, trans, or gender-variant members of the public from hate crimes? And yet precendent has now been set for him to claim wrongful dismissal. I am very hopeful that the courts will find this a clear case of harassment against his colleagues, but sadly, I do not and cannot have faith in the justice system. After all, there is no such precedent for justice for Kellie Telesford.

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