Hereford Case Judgement

As Simon and others are reporting, the Bishop of Hereford has lost the case brought against him by John Reaney. Now that I’ve got back in I want to comment on this case and some matters arising.

First, I think the bishop was legally incorrect in his actions in the original interview. While he was perfectly entitled to ask Mr Reaney what his prior and current sexual activity was, he couldn’t, given the assurances Mr Reaney made to him, essentially say to Reaney, “I don’t believe you”, and not hire him on that basis. The Diocese is right therefore to partly defend the bishop’s actions when it writes:

Commenting after receiving the Tribunal’s Judgement, The Bishop of Hereford, Anthony Priddis, who gave evidence at the hearing, said he was disappointed but not completely down. “The Tribunal accepted that I did not ‘interrogate’ Mr Reaney and that I had acted in accordance with the teachings of the Church of England. It also recognised that the post of Diocesan Youth Officer falls within the small number of posts outside of the clergy which are within the religious exemptions of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003.”

but despite that the Bishop was guilty of discriminating against Reaney.

So what the court basically said was this – the Bishop was entitled to treat Reaney, though a lay employee, in the same manner that clergy are treated in the House of Bishops’ 1991 statement “Issues in Human Sexuality”. The argument from the tribunal seems to have been that Bishop Priddis applied the Bishop’s advice in IiHS incorrectly. This itself however is an important legal precedent. What the tribunal seems to have ruled is that the church is entitled to ignore the provisions of the Sexual Orientation Regulations if they conflict with church doctrine or established pastoral practice based on doctrine.

Whether the legality of Bishop Priddis’ questioning of Reaney was based upon Issues, the 1987 Synod resolution or the Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1:10 (affirmed by Synod implictly when it affirmed the Windsor Report and the Dromantine Communique), the point is clear – the church is entitled to ignore the law on sexual orientation discrimination where it conflicts with doctrine AND pastoral practice based upon that doctrine. The tribunal ruled that the Bishop’s action was illegal because it was inconsistent with the pastoral practice laid out (that practising homosexuals could be denied identical rights of employment). It therefore also ruled that the pastoral practice of denying occupation to a practising homosexual, and the questioning of someone to discover whether they were a practising homosexual, was in and of itself NOT illegal.

This itself begs another question. If the church IS legally allowed to discriminate on these grounds, why have we accepted pension rights for partners of clergy in Civil Partnerships? While the Priddis case can be seen as a short-term win for the liberal argument, in the medium term has it actually shot them in the foot? Speaking off the record to someone this evening who had the tribunal ruling in front of them, I’ve discovered that the ruling, officially published tomorrow or Friday, specifically cites one or more Church of England doctrinal and pastoral statements (for example Issues in Human Sexuality) and treats them as being authoritative for the church and therefore valid exemptions under section 7(3) of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. The principle has therefore been established in law that the type of documents referred to in the ruling ARE in and of themselves reasonable grounds for discrimination under sectio 7(3), as long as they are adhered to (which Priddis did not). If this is the case, if Synod or the House of Bishops passed a motion or published a paper declaring that priests could not enter into a civil partnership nor receive any benefits from the Church of England from being in a Civil Partnership (e.g. spousal pension benefits), does the tribunal ruling mean that that would be acceptable in UK law? Does Synod have the guts to put its lawyers where it’s mouth is?

I’m not a canon lawyer so I don’t know, but I’d love to find out and have some English / Welsh legal opinions on the matter. What do you guys think?