Religious discrimination in faith schools

“Living in sin” – it was a phrase frequently heard not that many years ago but now, in a mark of changing times, is seldom if ever heard. However, the phrase, in its literal sense, has resurfaced in what some might consider to be a remarkable decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in the case of Gan Menachem Hendon Limited v Ms Zelda de Groen.

Ms de Groen worked from 2012 to 2016 at the Gan Menachem Hendon nursery as a teacher. The nursery is linked with the ultra orthodox Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement. When attending a barbecue with her boyfriend, he revealed, in the presence of parents of children who attended the nursery and one of the nursery’s directors, that he and Ms de Groen were cohabiting. There followed a meeting between Ms de Groen, the headteacher Miriam Lieberman and the nursery’s managing director, Dina Toron. In the course of the meeting Ms de Groen was told that her private life was of no concern to the nursery. However, she was asked to confirm that she was no longer living with her boyfriend so that “concerned parents” could be notified accordingly. In other words she was asked to lie and refused to do so.

As if that was not enough Ms Lieberman and Ms Toron told Ms de Groen that cohabitation outside marriage was wrong, that having children outside of marriage was wrong and that, at the age of 23, Ms de Groen should be aware that “time was passing” for her to have children. They also suggested that if Ms de Groen had problems with the idea of marriage, she should seek counselling. Ms de Groen was very tearful and distressed. She felt that such a meeting should not have taken place and only continued in her employment because she loved working with the children. Two days later she asked for a written apology and confirmation that it would not happen again. She said that she had taken legal advice. Mrs Toron and Mrs Lieberman said that she was being threatening and aggressive at the meeting (the Tribunal found that she was not, but she was clear and firm). They did not apologise. Instead, they said that they should not have been so nice to her and that they had sufficient “ammunition” to deal with any claim that she might bring. They then cut the meeting short.

The following day Ms de Groen received a letter notifying her of the commencement of disciplinary proceedings.