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The claimant, an actor with strong Christian beliefs, was cast to play the role of Celie in the stage adaptation of “The Color Purple”, a production inspired by Alice Walker’s renowned book. While the book portrayed Celie’s relationship with Shug in a subdued manner, the stage musical emphasised their physical connection more prominently. The claimant stated that she was unaware of this aspect when accepting the role.

The character of Celie is recognised as an iconic lesbian role, and when the claimant’s casting was announced, a social media storm developed due to a previous Facebook post in which the claimant expressed views condemning homosexuality as sinful and advocated for Christians to uphold their beliefs. This post gained widespread traction, leading to the termination of the claimant’s contracts with both the theatre (the second respondent) and her agency (the first respondent).

Following the claimant’s dismissal, she brought claims relating to religion and belief discrimination, harassment, and breach of contract, and disclosed that, having only then read the script, she would have resigned from the role of Celie in due course.

The ET dismissed the claimant’s claims stating that although her beliefs ‘scraped’ over the threshold of being protected, they did not warrant a favourable judgment, and costs were awarded against her.

The claimant appealed the Tribunal’s decision.

The EAT, in dismissing the appeal, agreed with the tribunal’s findings. The EAT clarified that the claimant’s dismissal was not directly linked to her expression of Christian faith but rather stemmed from the adverse impact of the widespread social media attention on the cast, audience, producers’ reputation, and the production’s commercial success.

The EAT further went on to state that although the claimant perceived her dismissal as hostile, the tribunal reasonably determined that such a perception was unjustified, and given her awareness of the seriousness of the situation and its implications for the respondent, the claimant’s harassment claim was not upheld.

The EAT also upheld the dismissal of the claimant’s breach of contract claim. Despite receiving her full performance fee, the fact that she expressed her intention not to fulfil the role upon reviewing the script meant she incurred no actual loss.

However, a notable concern left unaddressed by the EAT is the question of whether it is safe for employers to remain impartial bystanders amid social media controversies surrounding an employee’s protected beliefs. This case raises the possibility that an employer can legitimately cave into public pressure and dismiss an employee with contentious views, potentially sidestepping liability for discrimination or harassment under the Equality Act.

If public outcry is itself discriminatory, will an employer that bows to such pressure avoid liability for discrimination or harassment?

Comparisons can be drawn with the recent Higgs -v- Farmor’s School case (which we reported on here), which is under review by the Court of Appeal, and may offer future guidance to employers regarding the management of protected beliefs both in the workplace and on social media platforms.

In the meantime, this case serves as a reminder for employers to have well-documented, fair and transparent decision-making processes focused on the commercial or reputational consequences of an individual’s protected belief or their expression of it, as opposed to the belief itself.

Please note that this information is for general guidance only and should not substitute professional legal advice. If you have specific concerns, we recommend consulting with one of our legal experts.


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