Press Release

Christian social worker was ‘discriminated’ against by NHS provider but will appeal controversial ruling

1 July 2024         Issued by: Christian Concern

An Employment Tribunal has found that an NHS provider ‘directly discriminated’ against Christian social worker, Felix Ngole, by withdrawing his ‘dream job’ after discovering he had orthodox Christian beliefs on human sexuality.

However, the ruling handed down by Employment Judge Jonathan Brain, also includes mixed and chilling conclusions for Christian freedoms and free speech, leaving Mr Ngole no alternative but to appeal and continue his fight for justice.

Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Mr Felix Ngole, 46, brought a discrimination case against Stonewall backed Touchstone Leeds, who recruit on behalf of the NHS, after he was told that he had to ‘embrace and promote LGBTQ+ rights’ or be unemployable.

After a first interview in May 2022, Touchstone concluded that Mr Ngole was the best candidate (beating 15 candidates) after he successfully applied for a job as Mental Health Support worker at Wakefield Hospital.

However, once it was discovered by Touchstone, following a google search, that Mr Ngole had in 2019 won a landmark legal case at the Court of Appeal over his right to freedom of speech, everything changed.

In 2015, Mr Ngole was thrown off his social work training course at Sheffield University following a debate on Facebook which quoted passages from the Bible about same-sex marriage.

But in a major victory for Christian freedoms, the Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that Mr Ngole would ‘never discriminate against anyone’ because of his Christian beliefs and he was allowed to return to his training and subsequently qualified as a social worker.

Because of this legal victory, not despite it, Touchstone withdrew the job offer saying that Mr Ngole’s beliefs did not ‘align’ with their ethos as an ‘inclusive employer’ and that he posed a risk to the organisation’s reputation and to service users.

When he questioned the withdrawal of the job offer, Mr Ngole was invited back for a ‘second interview’ where he said he was interrogated about his beliefs. He was told by Touchstone bosses that unless he could demonstrate how he would ‘embrace and promote homosexual rights’, the job offer would remain withdrawn.

He was also told in the second interview that he would be expected to attend LGB and Transgender awareness training but would not be free to share his views despite others being free to share their LGBT affirming views.

Despite Mr Ngole seeking to assure Touchstone that he had never been accused of forcing his beliefs on anyone and that he had never been accused of discriminating against anybody, the job offer was not reinstated.

Direct Discrimination

Following a full employment tribunal hearing in Leeds in March 2024, handing down judgment this week, Judge Brain has ruled that:

“Unfortunately, [Touchstone’s] approach had a severe effect upon Mr Ngole’s right to freedom of expression. It had a significant impact upon him as he really wanted the job. While the objective being pursued by Touchstone was of course very important, simply withdrawing the conditional job offer without giving him that opportunity went further than was reasonably necessary towards Touchstone’s objective. [Mr Ngole] was simply not in post and therefore there was no or little risk of a service user finding him through an internet search. He would simply not have been on the radar of any service user at that point.”

Finding that Touchstone had breached Mr Ngole’s rights to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR, Judge Brain ruled: “this aspect of the [Mr Ngole’s] direct discrimination claim succeeds.”

He said that: “Touchstone fell into the same error as did the University of Sheffield in Ngole”, and that: Just as the University had “wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination”… so too did [Touchstone].

He added that: “The reason why [Touchstone] acted as they did cannot therefore be on the grounds of objectionable expression but rather to the legitimate expression of his views. These were rooted in his religion. That is the reason why he was treated as he was. The reason why is clear.”

Judge Brain found that: “There was an expectation that [Mr Ngole] would attend LGBT awareness training…Although not prohibited altogether from expressing his views on homosexuality and same sex marriage, the expectation plainly was that there were to be great constraints imposed on [Mr Ngole’s] freedom to express opinions about such matters which [Mr Ngole] was prepared to respect to some degree. We accept that [Mr Ngole] was expected to actively promote the rights of service users from LGBTQI+ communities. We also accept that [Mr Ngole] was expected to support same sex marriage.”

‘Mother Theresa not fit for social work’

However, while the ruling found that Mr Ngole was discriminated against by the job offer being withdrawn, Judge Brain also ruled that Touchstone were justified in not reinstating the job following the ‘second interview.’

Judge Brain said: “Ultimately, then, the issue is less of the appropriate comparison than that of determining the real reason why [Mr Ngole] was treated as he was. The real reason that Mr Ngole was treated as he was is [sic] because of his expression of views rooted in his religious beliefs which impacted on Touchstone’s concerns for the safeguarding of their service users. The expression of his beliefs rooted in his religion was a material reason for the decision taken by Touchstone to withdraw the conditional job offer… The direct discrimination claim must therefore succeed. The reason why the job offer was not reinstated is [Mr Ngole’s] performance in interview…and the concerns of Mrs Hart and Mr Pickard for the welfare of service users. These concerns were not assuaged by the interview.”

Chillingly, Judge Brain added that Touchstone had: “Well-founded concerns that others (in particular service users) may come across his beliefs which may be harmful to their already vulnerable mental health.”

He suggested that this was not a “hecklers’ veto” but to “justify interference with [Mr Ngole’s] freedom of expressions specifically upon the risk that holding [Mr Ngole’s] views about homosexuality might deter mentally [ill] people of the LGBTQI+ community from engaging with [Touchstone’s] services risking [Touchstone’s] ability to perform their core healthcare functions and risking significant reputational damage.”

Concluding this part of the ruling, Judge Brain said: “Balancing the interests of [Touchstone] in preserving the mental health of their service users against the wishes of [Mr Ngole] to work for [Touchstone] and his ability to work elsewhere gives of only one answer. The balance favours [Touchstone], and their actions were therefore proportionate and are justified.”

Judge Brain also agreed with Touchstone staff, and expert evidence provided by its lawyers, that even Mother Theresa would not be suitable to work in the NHS based on her holding orthodox Christian beliefs on human sexuality.

Providing evidence for Touchstone, LGBTQI+ advocate, Dr Eli Joubert,  when cross-examined about Mother Theresa’s suitability to support LGBTQI+ people, argued that the employment place could become “an unsafe place because ‘they employ someone like this’”, and commented that: “the risk cannot be quantified but if recognised then it should be eliminated as much as possible.”

During the trial, LGBTQI+ activist and Head of Operations at Touchstone, Dave Pickard, suggested during cross examination that NHS service users would find one of the most famous and influential verses in the Bible, John 3:16, ‘triggering.’

He added that if a service user was told by a member staff that they did not agree with same sex marriage or they said that there are only two genders, that ‘it could lead to death.’

Extraordinarily in his ruling, Judge Brain agreed with Mr Pickard and said Touchstone staff were: “entirely justified in exploring with [Mr Ngole] how the expressions of orthodox Christian belief around homosexuality and same sex marriage would impact upon their staff and service users.” 

Recusal for ‘apparent bias’

The judgment also highlighted how at the start of the hearing a member of the presiding panel, Mr Mohammad Taj, was recused for ‘apparent bias.’

Judge Brain said that Mr Ngole’s legal team had discovered material“which revealed that Mr Taj had been president of the TUC…During that time, he had supported the TUC’s LGBTQI + Conference”, and that: “At the 146th Annual TUC Conference…a motion was carried with Mr Taj’s personal involvement. This motion advocated a position that it was time to “unring the bell on religious zealotry.” The Tribunal understands this to essentially advocate that religious orthodoxy of any kind should be repudiated.

Judge Brain agreed that Mr Taj’s stance at the: “conference and then at the annual conference went beyond advocating for equality of treatment (to which there can be no objection) and crossed the line into campaigning.”

‘I have to appeal’

Responding to the ruling, Mr Ngole said“I am pleased that the tribunal found that I was discriminated against, but there are so many disturbing comments and conclusions in it as well which leaves me with no choice but to appeal.

“The ruling ultimately sets a dangerous precedent as it gives employers the freedom to block Christians, and anyone who doesn’t promote LGBTQI+ ideology, from employment.

“If I was discriminated against when they withdrew the job offer then I don’t see how I was not also discriminated against when they refused to reinstate me after the ‘second interview.’

“I was told I was the best candidate for the job, then they suddenly found I was unemployable because they discovered that I am a Christian.

“No one has ever told me that I have not treated them well in my professional experience. I have never been accused of forcing my beliefs on anyone. I have supported vulnerable individuals from all backgrounds, including LGBT.

“It is untenable for employers to be allowed to discriminate against Christian beliefs in this way and to force individuals to promote an ideology that goes against their conscience in the workplace.

“There was no mutual respect, and no tolerance and inclusion of me and my beliefs whatsoever. 

“If we get to the point where if you don’t celebrate and support LGBT you can’t have a job, then every Christian out there doesn’t have a future. You can study as much as you like, but you will not have a chance.

“The UK is no longer the country I heard about all those years ago when fleeing Cameroon. The UK then was a bastion of free speech and expression.

“I have no choice but to pursue justice again because if this is happening to me it will be happening to Christians and individuals from all beliefs and backgrounds across the country.”

Contorted reasoning

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “Judge Brain’s reasoning in this ruling is contorted.

“Judge Brain had to find that Felix Ngole had been directly discriminated against for his Christian beliefs because the evidence permitted no other conclusion. This is where the case should have ended and Felix exonerated and reinstated.

“Instead, Judge Brain goes on to state that Felix’s Christian beliefs mean that Touchstone acted in a right and proportionate manner not to reinstate him.

“Judge Brain argued that it was legitimate for Touchstone to discriminate against Felix for merely holding and expressing on social media a traditional Christian belief on marriage and sexuality because of the potential harm to people identifying as LGBTQI.

“This ruling opens up the reality of employers discriminating against and denying employment to anyone who does not celebrate and promote complete LGBT affirmation. We are creating a society where social workers, doctors, nurses and psychologists, for example, have to be silent or face accusations that merely holding their protected beliefs could lead to patients coming to harm.

“You could not ask for a better and more compassionate social worker than Felix Ngole. Felix loves Jesus and believes what the Bible says about who we are as humans.

“The Court of Appeal found that Felix had not and was unlikely to discriminate against anybody. However, this ruling concludes that just the knowledge that he holds Christian beliefs on human sexuality means he is unsuitable for employment in the NHS.

“This ruling cannot stand and it is deeply discriminatory. We will fight for Felix until he receives justice.”

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