Charity 'wrong' to sack Christian counsellor

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The Independent Online

A counselling charity agreed today that it wrongfully dismissed a Christian counsellor who refused to offer sexual technique advice to homosexual couples.

At an employment tribunal the Avon branch of Relate conceded a wrongful dismissal claim by Gary McFarlane, who had said it was against his religious beliefs to offer psycho-sexual therapy (PST) to same sex couples.

Keith Knight, counsel for Relate, accepted that the charity wrongfully dismissed Mr McFarlane on the grounds of gross misconduct and should have given him notice to leave after deciding they had lost trust and confidence in his ability.

Mr McFarlane, a 47-year-old father of two who lives in Hanham, Bristol, is a former clinical negligence lawyer and church elder and now works as a law mediator in London.

He said he felt his Christian beliefs meant he was unable to give cognitive sexual technique counselling to homosexuals but was happy to work with same sex couples on relationship issues in therapy.

After a two-day hearing the tribunal panel today reserved their judgment on further claims of unfair dismissal, harassment and discrimination on the grounds of religion.

They will publish their ruling at a later date.

Mr McFarlane worked for Relate for around six hours every Monday, earning £7.49 an hour and working towards his counselling qualifications.

His work includes "cognitive directional sexual technique" with couples in PST, an area that he had volunteered to train in.

He told the tribunal that he had experienced inner-turmoil when he first started offering relationship advice to homosexuals in "couple counselling" only but had soon realised that his work with them did not endorse their lifestyle and was happy to continue this.

But early on in his PST work he raised concerns with his supervisor that he felt he was unable to give directive sex therapy to same sex couples.

He had compared his situation with that of the position of religious doctors and nurses under the Abortion Act.

Mr McFarlane, who started training with Relate in May 2003, was suspended in October 2007 but reinstated in January 2008 after Relate say he agreed to abide by an equal opportunities policy.

He says that he then became the victim of a campaign after a letter was circulated around the centre which labelled him a homophobe and called for him to go.

Following a further disciplinary hearing, after Mr McFarlane reiterated his earlier stance, he was dismissed on 18 March.

Relate claim that Mr McFarlane's inability to give sex advice to homosexuals was a breach of their equal opportunities policy and made it impossible for him to continue working as a counsellor.

But Mr McFarlane maintains that his beliefs were part of a personal journey and that he was forced into admitting his religious struggle before he had fully accepted it himself.

He claims Relate could easily "filter" heterosexual clients to him for sex therapy but Relate argue that this would damage clients as they may feel rejected on the basis of their sexual orientation.

After the hearing Mr McFarlane said he was happy that Relate had conceded that they had wrongfully dismissed him.

"This is not about me, I am a people person and every professional role I have had is about people conflicts and relationships," he said.

"If the decision goes against me it has big implications for other counsellors that are looking on, non-Christians and Christians.

"This is a case where the balance of fairness has tilted too far to one particular group.

"This is not just about a Christian principle, it is about people's faith who may have various types of and there has to be a system to help those individuals work through those issues and have their stance accommodated.

"I am always learning from my clients, and they from me, and I would never want to give up a sector of society because they help me to become more holistic."

A spokesman for Relate said they will wait to hear the final ruling on the case before making a full comment but added: "As the leading provider of relationship support and sex therapy, we believe that we have acted appropriately to uphold our equal opportunities policy and ensure quality of access to our services whilst balancing the rights of individuals."