Claims of discrimination made by a dead woman against a Christian institution have been aired in a highly-unusual employment tribunal.
At the centre of the case is Colette Wright, a former employee in the administration team of Belfast Bible College, who died in 2017.
It hinges in large part on alleged discrimination against her on grounds of religious/political views.
Her family believe she may have been the sole Catholic working at the college, which is said to have been dominated by a Protestant evangelical ethos.
Her claim is against both the college itself and employee Alan McCormick (who joined in 2008 and is currently listed on the college’s website as director of operations).
In addition, it is claimed she suffered discrimination due to her age, and was indirectly discriminated against due to her sex. All the allegations are contested.
The tribunal panel, sitting in Killymeal House in central Belfast on Tuesday, heard Mrs Wright believed she was earmarked for redundancy in late 2015.
What followed was a period of absence from work, the emergence of her claims of discrimination, then an agreement by her to take voluntary redundancy in April 2016.
However her family said that, aged 61, she took her own life the following February.
Widower Brendan Wright – a 62-year-old teacher from Lambeg, who was diagnosed with leukaemia three months after her suicide – then had the legal action transferred to his name and is continuing to proceed with the case.
He was in court with their daughter Emma, 27. They were represented by lawyer Geoff Wilson, who – in another bizarre twist – was also sworn in as the first witness in the case.
In an opening statement, he described it as a “very tragic case” since “the original claimant is no longer with us”, but lauded Mr Wright for “continuing on as he sees it with his wife’s wishes”.
The tribunal was told by Mr Wilson that Colette Wright, a self-described SDLP voter, had been a part-time receptionist at the college (which was founded in 1943 and is based in south-west Belfast).
She began work there in 2003, and “got on well with everybody”.
However there was a change of senior management at the college in the late 2000s, he said, suggesting to the panel that Mr McCormick’s “certain brand of evangelical Protestant belief” had given rise to what could have been “unconscious” acts of bias.
Mr Wilson went on to take an oath on the Bible and was quizzed by fellow solicitor Richard Taylor, for the college.
The first question he was asked was what religion he belonged to.
Whilst Mr Wilson said he was from the Protestant community, he declined to elaborate when asked about which church he is affiliated with, saying it was not relevant – a point with which the tribunal judge agreed.
However, he did say that his upbringing had been a strict evangelical one, and that “I’m well aware of how evangelicals think”, adding that there are different strands of opinion within that tradition concerning whether or not Catholics can be counted as Christians.
In his testimony, Mr Wilson said Mrs Wright had neither liked nor trusted Mr McCormick.
He recalled his deceased client telling him that another person at the college had informed her: “Alan tells me you’re a Catholic.”
This “really annoyed her” Mr Wilson said, because “it was not Alan’s business to tell people in the college what religion she was”.
He asked why the fact would be mentioned at all “if it was not a problem... I think it is a reasonable assumption”.
Mr Taylor responded: “I’d respectfully disagree.”
The tribunal heard that on another occasion she had corrected a co-worker who assumed her church, St Colman’s, was an Anglican one, when in fact she attended a Catholic one of the same name.
The man’s reaction was to say “Oh...” and turn away, the tribunal heard.
However, in response the college’s lawyer said the man in question rejects the idea there was anything “discriminatory” at play, saying it had been a conversation which both started and finished appropriately.
It was also said she was given “anti-Catholic” pamphlets to photocopy as part of a presentation on Protestant reformer Martin Luther.
Whilst Mr Wilson agreed to an extent that there was not enough in this example to draw a definitive conclusion from it, he said it was part of the “background evidence to show the college was very evangelical”.
On another occasion, Mr Wilson said Mc McCormick had shouted at Mrs Wright for not passing on a telephone message to him, leaving her feeling “embarrassed”.
Mr Taylor said this had been down to the nature of the call he was waiting for (it was a family message).
In another piece of evidence, he said Mrs Wright had recalled that – upon attending the college for interview ahead of his appointment in 2008 – Mr McCormick was the sole candidate to “ignore” her as she left the building; although it was conceded that he could not have known her religion at that stage.
Mr Taylor said that two females of evangelical Protestant background had also been made redundant alongside Mrs Wright, and asked if Mr Wilson was making a case that the college was “so fixated” on getting rid of Mrs Wright that it went so far as to “manufacture a reason” which also involved “making two other employees of a Protestant background redundant”.
Mr Wilson said this is not his position, but the fact two of the three redundant staff were Protestant “doesn’t mean there’s no discrimination”.
The college said that Mr McCormick had not been the “decision-maker” when it came to redundancy, but Mr Wilson countered that nonetheless Mrs Wright believed “Alan McCormick is behind it”.
The case, listed to be held over nine days before employment judge Julie Knight and other panel members Ivan Atcheson and Dot Adams, continues.