So says the Court of Appeal, upholding the previous finding of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in the case of Haley Preston (formerly Moore) vs. the President of the Methodist Conference.
The background to this case is that in 2009 Ms Preston resigned as a Methodist minister and subsequently commenced proceedings in the Employment Tribunal alleging unfair constructive dismissal. This raised the issue whether she was in fact an employee of the church and therefore entitled to take her case to the ET. The ET decided that she was not an employee, citing a case from 1984 and dismissed her case. Ms Preston appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which overturned the judgement of the ET. The EAT felt that the ET had not taken sufficient recognition of a more recent (2006) case in the House of Lords concerning a Church of Scotland minister.
In response the Methodist Church decided to fight the case, as it felt there was an important point of principle involved. It was this appeal which the Court of Appeal yesterday dismissed.
It appears that in making its argument the church’s lawyer played the religious discrimination card, making reference to Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Court of Appeal was less than unimpressed with this line of argument:
“What, it may be asked rhetorically, has this to do with the domestic law of unfair dismissal?” (Para. 29)
“When asked to explain how the existence of a contract of employment might interfere with the right of Methodists to manifest their religious belief, Mr Hyams [the Methodist Church’s legal representative] referred only to the implications of accountability in an ET and the financial cost involved. I am sorry to say that, to my mind, this only serves to emphasise the unattractiveness and moral poverty of the attempted invocation of Article 9 in this case.” (Para. 34)
Mr Hyam’s attempt to invoke the Deed of Union and thereby “imbue the dispute between the parties with a doctrinal element” was also given short shrift: “it surely does not embrace a doctrinal belief that a Minister who is treated with unfairness or discrimination must be denied common legal redress.” (Para. 33)
The response of the Methodist Church is to fight on. General Secretary Martyn Atkins has stated :
“The Methodist Church is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court against the judgement that Haley Preston’s (formerly Moore) case is a matter for an employment tribunal. We are treating this matter with great seriousness as something which would affect all of our ministers and the culture of our Church.
“The church values all of its ministers, and it is clear to us that relationship cannot easily be reduced to a simple contract of employment. The call to Methodist ministry cannot be treated as just another job – it is based on a lifetime calling, expressed through a covenant relationship with the Church.
“We want to ensure that we treat everyone fairly and properly and all of our ministers have rights of redress under existing Church procedures. We are committed to caring for all who serve the Church, whether lay or ordained, paid or volunteer.”
My response is essentially still that I offered in May after the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled in favour of Ms Preston. What are we afraid of?