A school that dismissed a teacher for not leaving her husband after his conviction for sex offences was found to have unfairly dismissed and indirectly discriminated against her on the grounds of her religious beliefs.
Mrs Pendleton was a very well regarded teacher at Glebe Junior School with over 12 years’ service and an unblemished disciplinary record. She was also a committed and practising Anglican Christian, and was married to the Head Teacher at a school which was in the same close community as Glebe Junior School.
In July 2013 Mrs Pendleton’s husband was convicted and sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment for downloading indecent images of children and voyeurism. It was accepted that there was no evidence that Mrs Pendleton had any knowledge of the matters that her husband was arrested for. Although initially she had been reassured by the school that her job would remain open, she was later told that the school would struggle to support her if she remained with her husband.
Mrs Pendleton confirmed she would stay with her husband as long as she was satisfied that he demonstrated unequivocal repentance, which she believed was in accordance with the marriage vows she had made in the presence of God. Although no investigation was carried out into any concerns of parents or others, Mrs Pendleton was subsequently dismissed because her employer believed that, following her choice to maintain a relationship with her husband in full knowledge of the offences he admitted to, she was no longer suitable to carry out the safeguarding responsibilities of her role.
The tribunal had found that Mrs Pendleton had been unfairly dismissed, but there was no indirect discrimination due to her religious beliefs because she would have been dismissed regardless of her religious belief in the importance of her marriage vows.
The EAT upheld Mrs Pendleton’s appeal on that point and found that indirect discrimination due to religious beliefs had been established. The dismissal did constitute a PCP (provision, criterion or practice) because the evidence from the employer showed that anyone else who did the same thing would be treated in the same way. This was sufficient to show there was a practice or policy.
Mrs Pendleton was also found to have suffered a particular disadvantage linked to her religious beliefs. Although others who were in a longstanding and loving relationship would be at a disadvantage due to having a difficult choice to make in such a situation, the EAT found that those who shared Mrs Pendleton’s beliefs would suffer a particular disadvantage due to the additional pressure they would feel to act contrary to their religious belief in the sanctity of their marriage vows.
The EAT also found that the dismissal could not be justified. Whilst the school may have had a legitimate aim to pursue, the school had provided no evidence that dismissal was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Although the facts of this case are highly unusual, this is an interesting example of where an apparent one off disciplinary act can be deemed to be a PCP for the purposes of an indirect discrimination claim. In this case the dismissal was shown to have been effected as a result of the application of a potentially discriminatory policy, even though the policy had not been used before.
In any indirect discrimination claim it is important for employers to evidence that any treatment is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Employers would be wise to take all options into account before disciplinary action is taken. In this case, the employer had evidenced a closed mind to anything other than dismissal, which considerably weakened its position.
Pendleton v Derbyshire County Council and The Governing Body of Glebe Junior School  UKEAT/0238/15