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Christian Teacher Fired for Not Divorcing Husband Wins in British Court

Judge: Her belief in the sanctity of marriage put her at a disadvantage.
Christian Teacher Fired for Not Divorcing Husband Wins in British Court

British couple Sarah and Matthew Pendleton had been married for almost 13 years when Matthew was arrested for voyeurism and downloading indecent pictures of children. After her husband’s criminal charges, Sarah—an Anglican Christian—was forced to choose between her marriage and her career in education.

Despite her record as an experienced, well-respected teacher of 10- and 11-year-olds in Derbyshire, England, Sarah’s school made it clear that if she chose to stick with Matthew, they would assume that she condoned his behavior, and she would be out of a job.

“By making a choice to continue a relationship with her husband in full knowledge of the offenses he has admitted to, [Sarah’s] actions do not uphold the trust in the profession,” head teacher Jan Seymour said at a disciplinary hearing.

Sarah took her case to court, arguing that she had been unfairly dismissed and discriminated against because of her Christian belief in the sanctity of marriage.

Matthew, a head teacher at a nearby school, was sentenced to 10 months in jail for photographing boys in the locker room with a small camera hidden in a pen. At first Sarah’s school told her that her job was safe when she took a leave of absence to stay with her parents; later, it turned out her job was safe only if she left her husband. In August, the school suspended her. The next month, she was dismissed.

“As long as she stands by her husband, the LA [Local Authority, the UK equivalent of the Department of Family Services] has a clear view that she is not suitable to be a teacher,” the school’s human resources director wrote in an email.

Despite her employer’s ultimatum, Sarah took her vows seriously, the court documents stated. Satisfied that her husband was truly sorry, she decided to stay with him.

The employment tribunal generally sided with Sarah’s concerns, saying her decision not to divorce her husband was not grounds for termination. “The real reason for [Sarah’s] dismissal was the [school’s] view that she had exercised poor judgment in electing to stand by her husband despite the fact that he was a convicted sex offender,” they said.

But the tribunal didn’t agree that Sarah had been indirectly discriminated against because of her religious beliefs. After all, people who aren’t Christians could still also believe in sticking with their troubled marriage.

“Those who share the claimant’s religious conviction were at no greater or lesser risk of being dismissed than those who simply exercised their choice to stand by their partner or husband,” they wrote. “It seems to us, on the evidence, that those people who were unmarried but in a long-term loving relationship and who exercised the same choice as the claimant were just as likely to face the prospect of dismissal.”

On the flip side, other Christians who believed in the sanctity of marriage could have chosen to leave their spouse if faced with similar circumstances, they wrote.

The Church of England “wishes all who marry a lifetime of love” but “recognizes that some marriages do fail for all sorts of sad and painful reasons.” (Divorced people may remarry in the Anglican church if their priest agrees to it, the church decided in 2002.)

Sarah appealed the discrimination part of the ruling, and won.

Appeals judge Jennifer Eady said the tribunal was asking the wrong question—or rather, the right question but to the wrong hypothetical people. Instead of singling out what individuals might do, the court has to look at the characteristics of the larger group, she wrote.

“Comparing two groups, both comprising individuals in long-term, loving and committed relationships, facing the same difficult circumstances as arose in this case and given the choice between remaining with their husband/partner or their career but with one group also holding a religious belief in the sanctity of their marriage vows, I conclude the [employment tribunal] was bound to hold that the latter had an additional burden; a particular disadvantage,” she wrote.

That ruling means Sarah will be compensated for the discrimination by the school and the county; the amount has not yet been settled.

Last year, a member of the Village Church in Texas faced church discipline for filing for an annulment due to her husband’s secret addiction to child porn; the church later apologized and said she had “biblical grounds” for ending the marriage.

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