Baggage-handling, pastoring and sexual orientation: Houston

Colin Houston worked for Swissport as a baggage-handler at Belfast International Airport. He is also a heterosexual Christian pastor who disapproves of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. He was dismissed in September 2016 following a series of incidents [6]. He took his case to a Fair Employment Tribunal, claiming direct discrimination, harassment and victimisation on grounds of sexual orientation and/or religious belief/political opinion [28(1)]. In Houston v Swissport GB Ltd & Colin Morrow [2017] 93/16 FET 2247/16* he complained about:

  • “sickening and offensive” graffiti in the staff toilets which, he believed, targeted him as a Christian [71];
  • a bumper-sticker attached to his car which said: “I’m so gay I can’t even drive straight” [82]; and
  • a tin of MUM Fresh Pink women’s deodorant on top of his locker in the rest-room area which, he alleged, was harassment relating to his views on same-sex marriage and his heterosexuality, because the colour pink was associated with homosexuality [98].

His case was that

“soon after he started work he was watching the news on television with others and [he] was seen walking out of court with Pastor James McConnell … following this a certain view was taken at work of him and his religious political views in relation to sexual orientation. The claimant’s sexual orientation is heterosexual and his claim is that he was treated adversely because he was heterosexual combined with his perceived views and sexual orientation because of his religious/political opinion” [28(3)]

Regular readers may recall that Pastor James McConnell was prosecuted – and acquitted – over the content of a sermon that had been streamed on the Internet in which he declared that “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”. We noted the McConnell case here.

The Tribunal ruled that the graffiti was obviously offensive – but it was offensive to anyone, regardless of religion, and there was no evidence that it was aimed at Mr Houston [72]. As to the bumper-sticker, he claimed that it must have been put there while his car was in the staff car park but the Tribunal found no evidence that that was the case [90]. So far as the deodorant was concerned, it was a mixed locker-room and, in the circumstances, Mr Houston’s reaction seemed “particularly paranoid and exaggerated” [98].

The Tribunal was also told that Mr Houston had told an openly-gay colleague that there was a “cure for gayness” but his co-worker had not made a formal complaint [99]. Mr Houston claimed that none of that had happened; but the Tribunal ruled that, on the balance of probabilities, he had indeed made the remark [100].

He had also argued that his views on same-sex marriage and abortion would have been obvious to staff because he had “a significant public profile as a Christian pastor with particular interests in relation to same sex marriages and abortion” [47]; however, the Tribunal panel said that none of them had ever heard of him prior to the hearing and that in many of the newspaper articles and photographs offered in evidence he was unidentified and simply part of a group photograph [48]. Moreover, Mr Houston

“did not strike the Tribunal as a credible witness.  He gave evidence on his own behalf without calling a single supporting witness.  He seemed to be of the view that if he said something that automatically made it the truth and that it was incomprehensible that anything he said might be challenged” [37].

It was clear to the Tribunal that Mr Houston held religious beliefs and, in particular, beliefs in relation to same-sex relationships. His beliefs in relation to same-sex marriages would also qualify as a political opinion for the purposes of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 [106].

In conclusion:

  • the Tribunal did not regard his evidence as either coherent or credible [108];
  • there was little more that Swissport could have done about graffiti in the lavatories than they had already done [109] and, in any case, there was no evidence that the claimant (unlike the second-named respondent) had ever been named in any of the graffiti, nor was the graffiti aimed specifically at anyone with Christian beliefs or at anyone with particular views about same-sex marriage or relationships: it was “the usual crude and unpleasant rubbish frequently seen in toilets, both in workplaces and outside workplaces” [110], none of which related to Mr Houston or to his beliefs or amounted to “any sort of prima facie case of unlawful discrimination of any sort by either respondent” [111];
  • there was no evidence whatsoever that the bumper-sticker had been placed on Mr Houston’s car in the airport employee car park and, even if there had been, there was absolutely no evidence that it had been placed there by any employee of Swissport [118];
  • there was nothing approaching a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination of any sort in relation to the pink deodorant [120];
  • there was no evidence to support Mr Houston’s claim that he had been unfairly given baggage room duties in the aftermath of his complaint to Swissport [121];
  • Mr Houston’s manager had drafted a memorandum, which had to be signed by staff, clearly warning of disciplinary action if the offensive behaviour were to be repeated [122] and, realistically, there had been nothing more that the firm could have done about his allegations [123].

While the respondents could be criticised on some grounds, none of those criticisms amounted to a prima facie case of discrimination:

“Given the catalogue of complaints against the claimant in a relatively short period of time … the temptation to simply not renew the claimant’s contract of employment must have been overwhelming” [130].

Moreover, he had been on a temporary fixed-term contract due to expire shortly by effluxion of time alone. Swissport was not obliged to renew his contract of employment or to extend it for a further period and, because he had less than 52 weeks’ continuous service, Swissport was not obliged to use the statutory three-step dismissal procedure.  The claimant did not have any right to claim unfair dismissal simpliciter [131].

Claim dismissed.

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*Note: The decision is available on the NI Tribunals website – but because it is a Word document it can only be located via the Online Decision Search then downloaded: it is not possible to provide a direct hyperlink.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Baggage-handling, pastoring and sexual orientation: Houston" in Law & Religion UK, 8 August 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/08/08/baggage-handling-pastoring-and-sexual-orientation-houston/

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