Nicholas Hellen, Social Affairs Editor Published: 31 August 2014
Margaret Jones, a registrar who refused to marry same-sex couples, says she was sacked for her beliefs not for her actions
A MARRIAGE registrar has been vindicated by a council’s reversal of its decision to sack her for refusing to marry same-sex couples because of her Christian beliefs.
Margaret Jones, 54, who had been dismissed for “bringing the council into disrepute”, was offered her job back after an appeal hearing ruled that her employer had failed to take a “balanced view” of her religious beliefs.
While the decision does not create a legal precedent, it is likely to give people greater rights to express religious beliefs in the workplace because it was based on official guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Paul Diamond, barrister to the Christian Legal Centre, which advised Jones early in her battle, said: “All good employers should follow this precedent, and practising Christians should no longer fear expressing their beliefs.”
If Jones’s sacking had been upheld, it could have given employers power to judge whether particular religious opinions were acceptable.
Jones pointed out in her witness statement that none of her shifts had coincided with a same-sex wedding ceremony. “As I have not yet done anything wrong, I am being sacked for my belief, not my actions,” she wrote.
Jones said the council appeared to believe that gay rights trumped religious rights to such an extent that it told her “anybody who offered to help me by standing in for me [conducting a same-sex marriage] could be aiding and abetting discrimination”.
Jones, who was senior deputy registrar at Bedford register office, said she was willing to handle the paperwork on the day of the marriage ceremony, but not to conduct the actual wedding.
“I want people who get married to have a good experience, and I don’t think I could stand up and say that it ‘gives me great pleasure’ to declare a gay couple married,” she said.
Jones said there had never been any suggestion that she was homophobic nor that she had sought to make gay people feel uncomfortable.
Civil partnerships began in December 2005 and the first same-sex weddings took place in England and Wales on March 29 this year. In her witness statement Jones, who attends an evangelical church, said she had been “stunned” to be told on March 28 that “I had to conduct same-sex marriages or resign”.
She pointed out that it was easy for the council to accommodate her beliefs as she worked part-time and, because weddings need to be arranged with at least 16 days’ notice, staff rotas could have been altered.
The ruling that overturned her dismissal said EHRC guidance notes “encourage employers and employees to find reasonable solutions to religion or belief issues at work”.
Jones said she will not be returning to her job because the process had left her too disillusioned.
Central Bedfordshire council said: “These are complex issues and we are responding to relatively new legislation, which means the council’s duty not to discriminate has to be balanced against employees’ individual rights.
“Our decisions have been based on the guidance available to us at the time.”