A Christian registrar who refused to perform same-sex civil partnership unions because she believes that gay marriage is "sinful" has won her claim for discrimination, testing the boundaries of the fledgling religious discrimination law.
In a unanimous judgment, an employment tribunal found Islington council in north London unlawfully discriminated against Lillian Ladele, who was threatened with dismissal when she asked to be excused from conducting gay marriage ceremonies.
Ms Ladele, who worked in the registration service for nearly 16 years, said she held "orthodox Christian beliefs'' about marriage and same-sex unions and was not happy to perform civil partnerships. She asked to be excused from them because other registrars could conduct the services.
She was subjected to various acts of direct discrimination by the council on the grounds of her religious beliefs, the Central London Employment Tribunal ruled. This included disciplining her and threatening her with dismissal, concluding that she had committed gross misconduct and labelling and treating her as homophobic.
"I am delighted at this decision," Ms Ladele said. "It is a victory for religious liberty, not just for myself but for others in a similar position. Gay rights should not be used as an excuse to bully and harass people over their religious beliefs."
John Gilbert, Islington's executive member for human resources, said: "We're clearly disappointed, because we consider our approach was the right one. On first reading, the tribunal seems to have based its findings primarily on the fact that we could have continued to provide civil partnerships without Ms Ladele. The wider issue of whether councils should be able to expect employees to carry out civil partnerships doesn't seem to have been fully addressed. We'd like to assure staff and service users that our commitment to services and equalities won't be affected."
The case was financed by the Christian Institute, a charity that has also filed a lawsuit against the internet search engine Google for blocking an anti-abortion online advertisement.
Mike Judge, the institute's head of communications, said: "This important ruling confirms that gay rights should not be treated as trumping religious rights. The law clearly recognises this. If we really believe in equality before the law, that means respecting people who have sincerely held religious beliefs on sexual ethics. The witch-hunt against those who disagree with homosexual practice has to stop."
Last year, the employee tribunal heard around 600 religious belief discrimination complaints. Employment law experts say that such cases threaten to recast the boundaries of law in favour of employees whose religious beliefs clash with working practices.
In 2006, British Airways caused uproar after barring a check-in worker from wearing a crucifix at work, a policy the airline has now amended. Similar battles have been fought over Muslim employees' right to wear a hijab, or headscarf, and other overtly religious garb.
Mark Jones, solicitor for Miss Ladele, said: "Hopefully this decision will encourage other employers to balance competing rights where they conflict."