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Stuart Lauchlan

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Legal: no mass sackings, but check your equality policies in the wake of gay marriage vote

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With the gay marriage bill safely voted through the Commons with a massive majority, legal experts have dismissed the HR-centric scaremongering by opponents, but advise a re-examination of existing equality policies. 

MPs voted in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill by 400 to 175, a majority of 225. Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday’s vote had been "an important step forward" and Labour leader Ed Miliband called it a "proud day".

Opponents of the change in the law have claimed that it will lead to thousands of people being forced out of their jobs for not agreeing with it. But as the Bill proceeds to its next battle in the House of Lords, legal experts have today dismissed this idea. 

"I think that such fears have been hugely exaggerated and will soon die down," predicts David Evans, employment partner at Cripps Harries Hall. "The law recognises the individual’s freedom to maintain their own religious belief, both publicly and privately.

"Where that religious belief impacts on other fundamental rights, then a fair balance needs to be struck taking into account the democratic needs of society. If the Bill passes, this will certainly have an impact on where that balance needs to be struck."

But Evans does not expect to see mass sackings of groups such as teachers as the Coalition for Marriage has claimed. "I cannot foresee a situation where thousands of teachers will be disciplined, let alone dismissed, as a result of their religious views," he says. 

"First, teachers are professionals and are already well versed in presenting different viewpoints to their students, irrespective of their own personal opinions and beliefs," he says. "Second, the Government has assured teachers that there will no requirement to promote same sex marriages in the classroom, merely to inform that the law will now recognise marriage on this basis.

"Only in the most extreme of cases, will there be an issue. It is likely that even in these circumstances an alternative solution to discipline and/or dismissal will be found."

But organisations should be reviewing their own equality policies and practices to avoid confrontation, suggested Hayley Reid, senior associate in employment law at Stephenson Harwood. "Employers, and in particular those in the public sector, should review their equal opportunities policies," she advised. 

Reid suggests a three prong examination of policies to ensure that they: 

  • successfully balance the potentially conflicting views and beliefs held within their workforce and also between their employees and their clients, customers and service users
  • clearly set out an employee’s obligations under them
  • are brought to all employees attention.

“The strength of differing opinion displayed by those in power on same sex marriage also serves as a reminder to employers to ensure they have a tightly worded social media policy detailing how employees’ should express their views and beliefs on social media sites, such as facebook," she argues. 

"Employees should be directed to clearly state that any views expressed are their own personal ones and ideally they should not reference where they work on their profile. Such a policy safeguards against potential damage to an employer’s reputation and the risk of discrimination claims from colleagues of the employee who are his Facebook friends."

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