Christian loses appeal over ‘harassment’ of Muslim colleague

EAT rules against NHS employee who handed co-worker book on religious conversion; warning not to make others feel ‘uncomfortable’ over religious views

A born-again Christian who was disciplined by the NHS for “grooming” a Muslim colleague has lost a legal battle over the employer’s actions.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) dismissed an appeal by Victoria Wasteney against an earlier ruling that rejected her claims of religious discrimination by the East London NHS Foundation Trust.

Wasteney, head of forensic occupational therapy at the trust, had been suspended and given a written warning after an investigation into a complaint made by a Muslim occupational therapist who was in her first 12-month placement after completing training.

The Muslim woman said in an eight-page document in June 2013 that Wasteney had tried to impose religious views on her, with incidents including touching her knee while praying and handing her a book about a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. She characterised the behaviour as “grooming”.

Wasteney was suspended during an investigation held by the trust and, following a disciplinary hearing, was given a final written warning. At appeal, this was reduced to a first written warning.

Wasteney took the trust to the Employment Tribunal to answer claims including harassment, direct and indirect discrimination, and breaches of human rights. The Employment Tribunal dismissed the case in a letter sent out in February 2015.

Judge Eady permitted a full hearing of the EAT to decide whether the Employment Tribunal should have seen Wasteney’s religion as an exercise of the human rights convention, and whether it should have further tested the proportionality of the trust’s actions.

After hearing the case, Judge Eady said in her judgment published yesterday: “The claimant was not subjected to disciplinary process or sanction because she manifested her religious belief in voluntary and consensual exchanges with a colleague but because – as the Employment Tribunal expressly found – she subjected a subordinate to unwanted and unwelcome conduct, going substantially beyond ‘religious discussion’, without regard to her own influential position.

“The treatment of which the claimant complained was because of, and related to, those inappropriate actions, not any legitimate manifestation of her belief.”

The judge also found there was “no basis” for claims that the sanction imposed by the trust was oppressive. The appeal was dismissed.

Martin Pratt, a partner in the employment law team at Gordon Dadds, said employers should ensure religious conversations are consensual. “There is a dividing line for employees,” he said. “You can have your religious beliefs, and you can manifest them, but, if you impact on someone else’s beliefs or make them feel uncomfortable, that will be problematic.

“The definition of harassment is unwanted behaviour.”

Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion chief executive Denise Keating said: “The Equality Act 2010 states that harassment can be acting in a way that creates an intimidating environment based on religion and belief, even if the person responsible does not intend harassment.

“Employers can see this ruling as a reinforcement of the status quo, with all employees having the right to work in a non-threatening environment that respects their own unique beliefs without feeling pressure or hostility.”

East London NHS Foundation Trust said it was an inclusive trust that valued diversity.

“We would like to emphasise that, as a trust, our concerns have always been about the behaviour and actions of a senior manager employed by the trust and not about the faith or religion of any individual,” it said in a statement.

After the verdict, Wasteney said it had become impossible for employees to have a conversation about religion at work. Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which supported her, said the country had become “skewed to favour religions and ideologies other than Christianity”.

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