Employment Tribunal Judge: Don't express anything about your own beliefs in the workplace
An Employment Tribunal Judge has said that "people should not express anything about their own beliefs without it first being raised as a question by someone else".
Judge Martin Kurrein made the comments today (THU 30 MAR) during the hearing of Sarah Kuteh, a Christian nurse dismissed by the NHS after she spoke to patients about her faith, and occasionally offered prayer.
During cross-examination of one of the witnesses, Christian Legal Centre representative Pavel Stroilov, who is representing Mrs Kuteh, asked:
"Are you suggesting that in the context of Sarah's duties, any expression of her own religious beliefs is inappropriate?"
The witness, Sarah Collins, General Manager, Adult Medicine and Cancer Services at Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust, replied: "If it makes a patient feel uncomfortable, then yes, it is inappropriate."
Mr Stroilov remarked: "But you can't know in advance whether someone would be offended by a comment."
Judge Kurrein then said: "Yes, exactly. That is why you shouldn't make the comment. Everyone has their Article 9 rights and they can believe what they wish. But in the workplace they are circumscribed. Many people are not religious and there are many people that object. It is a subject fraught with difficulty and as a consequence people should not express anything about their own beliefs without it first being raised as a question by anyone else."
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that all people have freedom of religion and freedom to manifest religion.
Judge Kurrein had earlier said: "My knowledge about religion is lacking. I apologise if I offended anyone."
Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre, commented:
"Judge Kurrein demonstrated a profound lack of understanding about the Christian faith and what it means to be a Christian.
"This religious illiteracy is pushing Christians out of public life and robbing society of the service of many good people like Sarah Kuteh.
"To say that someone must be asked before they express anything about their own beliefs is deeply illiberal and wholly unworkable."
The hearing took place today (THU 30 MAR) and the judgment is expected within 28 days.
Judge Kurrein has previously been investigated for misconduct following a complaint about his behaviour during court proceedings.
The Lord Chancellor and the Senior President of the Tribunals found that "Judge Kurrein's behaviour failed to demonstrate the standards expected of a judicial office holder" and issued him with formal advice.
Andrea Williams added that "we have been subjected to the same rudeness today, with an additional level of disrespect for the Christian faith".
'Hugely disproportionate punishment'
Sarah Kuteh, who has 15 years' nursing experience, was sacked for gross misconduct in August 2016. She had worked at Darent Valley Hospital since 2007.
Her job involved asking patients about their faith as part of a pre-op assessment questionnaire. From time to time, this led to a conversation about faith with the patient.
During the time that she worked in the pre-op assessment department, Mrs Kuteh dealt with several hundred patients.
However, following just one official complaint and a few verbal complaints which were noted down by nurses, Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust began disciplinary proceedings which led to her dismissal. The Trust also referred her to the Nursing and Midwifery Council for disqualification proceedings.
The nursing sister and mother-of-three describes her dismissal as "a hugely disproportionate punishment".
She has made a claim for unfair dismissal, seeking reinstatement and compensation, and she is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre.
'Embarrassing and painful'
On average, Mrs Kuteh would see around 30-40 patients a week, and over the course of six months spoke to hundreds of patients.
Mrs Kuteh said that although she had no intention of imposing her beliefs on others, she would sometimes tell them about how her own faith in Christ had helped her overcome adversity.
"I would... reassure them, based on the joy and peace that I really have found in Jesus," she said.
In April 2016, her Matron came into her office and said she had been told by other staff about a few complaints by patients that she had discussed religion with them.
Mrs Kuteh said that from then on, she would only discuss religion if the patient asked her to. If they initiated the conversation about religion, she would check they were happy.
But in June 2016, she was called into the Matron's office and was shocked to be told that further complaints had been made. Only days later, she was suspended, told to collect her belongings and escorted from the hospital.
Mrs Kuteh recalls the experience as "embarrassing and very painful", in light of her fifteen years' nursing experience.
"I was walked out of that hospital after all I had done during all my years as a nurse and I was told I couldn't even speak to any of my colleagues," she said.
"All I had done was to nurse and care for patients. How could it ever be harmful to tell someone about Jesus?"
Dismissed with immediate effect
After her suspension, Mrs Kuteh was investigated. NHS management claimed her discussions with patients while filling out the forms were "inappropriate" and made some patients "feel uncomfortable".
During the investigation she was told that one patient had apparently complained to nurses that she had given her a Bible she did not want and had said she would pray for her, though Mrs Kuteh said she had only done so after the woman expressed an interest.
While the NHS papers refer to "complaints" from patients, Mrs Kuteh was only presented with brief handwritten notes by colleagues who had recorded the patients' comments in a few lines, suggesting the patients casually voiced some discontent.
Mrs Kuteh did not see the complaints before the investigation hearing and she was not allowed to call the patients to the hearing to investigate their claims.
Following a disciplinary hearing in August 2016, Mrs Kuteh was dismissed the same day and the Trust referred her to the Nursing and Midwifery Council. She is now facing disqualification proceedings before the NMC.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, she has brought a claim for unfair dismissal at the Employment Tribunal.
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