Tim Dieppe comments on the latest case of Felix Ngole and its implications for Christians in the workplace
The disturbing case of Felix Ngole, who was in court again this week, has brought the plight of Christians seeking employment back into the public square.
Long-time followers of Christian Concern will remember that Felix was expelled from the University of Sheffield in 2016 for personal Facebook posts that he had made, defending the historic Christian and Biblical position on marriage and sexual ethics – i.e. that marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and that sexual expression should be reserved for marriage as so defined.
An anonymous fellow student reported him to the university. He was disciplined by a fitness to practise panel and the university proceeded to expel him from his social work course on the basis that he had brought the social work profession into disrepute.
With the Christian Legal Centre’s backing, Felix took his case to court. The university argued that any public expression of Felix’s Christian views should be a bar to employment as a social worker. According to the university that would even include expressing such views in church! It did not matter how mildly expressed the views were; what mattered is that someone might hear them or read them.
The university agreed, however, that there was no evidence that Felix had ever discriminated against anyone or that he would do in future. The case rested entirely on the expression of his Christian opinions.
Vindicated in the Court of Appeal
Four years later, in the Court of Appeal, Felix was vindicated in a landmark judgment on free speech.
The court ruled that the university was wrong to expel him for expressing his views and that expressing his views should not be a bar to employment as a social worker.
Finally, last year, Felix graduated with a Masters in Social Work – the course he originally started back in 2014.
What did the judgment say?
The Court of Appeal judgment held that:
“The University wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination. The mere expression of views on theological grounds (e.g. that ‘homosexuality is a sin’) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views [the Claimant] will discriminate on such grounds. In the present case, there was positive evidence to suggest that [Mr Ngole] had never discriminated on such grounds in the past and was not likely to do so in the future (because, as he explained, the Bible prohibited him from discriminating against anybody).”
That is a very important point. Christians are taught to distinguish between the sinner and the sin. We are all sinners after all. We can and should love sinners while hating sin. Therefore, saying that something is sinful does not justify or support discrimination against people who engage in that sin.
How common is the belief that discriminating against Christians is justified?
Felix was clearly discriminated against by the university for the expression of his Christian views. The university then sought to justify its discrimination in court. It was only when it lost in the Court of Appeal that the University finally backed down. Presumably though, there are still faculty members and students at the University who still believe that expression of Christian views should be a bar to employment and would like the law to support that position?
The question is how many others in society believe that expression of Christian views should bar you from employment? How common is this perception? Even though the law finally supported Felix, it seems likely that many people believe that they are justified in discriminating against those who express Christian views on marriage and sexual ethics.
This question has been put to the test – by Felix himself. In spite of this Court of Appeal judgment saying that he does not discriminate and that the expression of his views should not be confused with discrimination, he has now had a job offer withdrawn for precisely these views.
Job offer withdrawn
Newly qualified, Felix applied for what he described as his “dream job” as a Mental Health Support Worker in Leeds. His role would be helping to manage the discharge of patients with mental health conditions into the community. Felix was the best performing candidate in interview, and he obtained the highest mark of any candidate in an equality and diversity assessment. So, Felix was offered the job and discussions began about his first day and who his line manager would be.
Imagine then the shock when Felix later received an email withdrawing the job offer. The employer found out about his previous case through an online search and discovered [shock horror!] that he held Christian views on marriage and sexual ethics. It seems that as soon as they found out that he had expressed orthodox Christian beliefs on sexual ethics, they withdrew the job offer.
The email from Touchstone, the employer, said:
“In particular, we can see that you have very strong views against homosexuality and same sex marriage, which completely go against the views of Touchstone, an organisation committed to actively promoting and supporting LGBTQ+ rights.”
Touchstone is not an LGBTQ+ campaign organisation. According to its website, it provides health and wellbeing services across Yorkshire. Should Christians be barred from working in health and wellbeing services? Would this also apply to conservative Jews or Muslims?
The email also said:
“In particular, we have serious concerns that your [Mr Ngole’s] ability to act in the best interests of Touchstone, its service users and its staff would be compromised by your strong views.”
Discriminated against again!
Let’s try to understand the employer’s position. Touchstone claimed that Felix’s ability to act in the best interests of service users and staff would be compromised by his strong views. This is precisely to contradict the Court of Appeal judgment cited above which criticised the University for wrongly conflating his views with discrimination. It is clear that once again Felix is being discriminated against because of his Christian views.
It is quite astonishing that this should happen again to Felix of all people. Felix has been exonerated of being discriminatory by the Court of Appeal. One would have thought that the any sane employer would back down once they read and appreciated what the judgment said. But no, Touchstone instead insists it was right to discriminate against Felix and is intent on arguing the case for discrimination in court.
Felix’s case was adjourned earlier this week so we will have to wait some more months for the outcome.
Other Christians barred from employment
The indications are that Felix’s case is sadly not an isolated incident. Kristie Higgs lost her job as a school pastoral assistant for sharing concerns on Facebook about sex education. Once again there is no evidence that Kristie ever discriminated against anyone. She was discriminated against for expressing her Christian views. Kristie won an important victory in the Employment Appeal Tribunal last month, but the case now needs to be heard again in the Employment Tribunal. Once again, her employer persists in arguing for the right to discriminate against her.
Maureen Martin lost her job working for a housing association after expressing her Christian beliefs on marriage in an election manifesto. She was discriminated against for expressing her Christian beliefs outside of the work context. Her employer, rather than argue in court for the right to discriminate against her, agreed to settle her case.
Rev Dr Bernard Randall was sacked as school chaplain for preaching a Christian sermon in a Christian act of worship in a Christian chapel in a Christian school. He was clearly discriminated against for expressing his Christian beliefs. His employer persists in arguing for the right to discriminate against him, and Bernard lost his case in the Employment Tribunal earlier this year. He will appeal this ruling.
Keith Waters lost his job as a school caretaker for a tweet expressing his Christian belief that Pride events are harmful for Children. His employer argued in court for the right to discriminate against him. Keith won his case last year in the Employment Tribunal which ruled that he had been discriminated against for expressing his Christian beliefs.
‘Hannah’, whose real name we cannot disclose, lost her teaching job for raising safeguarding concerns about an 8-year-old child being allowed to socially transition in school. She was discriminated against for expressing her Christian belief that young children ought not to be allowed to socially transition.
This is enough examples to point to a trend. It is not just a few employers, but multiple lawyers too who believe and are prepared to argue in court for the right to discriminate against Christians who express their Christian views on sexual morality or related issues.
Beneath the surface
These cases are all cases of actual employment, or in Felix’s case the offer of a job. What this doesn’t reveal is all the cases where Christians have been discriminated against by not being offered a job in the first place. How many times has Felix, for example, applied for a job and not been offered it because of his Christian beliefs? How many other Christians have been discriminated against in this way? The cases that reach court are the tip of the iceberg. They indicate a much bigger problem beneath the surface where it is much less visible.
To put it another way, how many Christians avoid expressing their Christian beliefs in the workplace or on social media for fear of discrimination? How many Christians are thus self-censoring to protect themselves from an openly discriminatory society?
If you are not in secular employment yourself, you could ask members of your church how open they are about their Christian beliefs in the workplace. I think you will find that the vast majority avoid talking about anything to do with same-sex marriage or sexual morality. They know that the equality and diversity activists will pounce on them if they do. In fact, they know or at least believe that they will be discriminated against if they express Christian beliefs – so they avoid doing so in order to continue to be able to provide for their families. This self-censorship extends beyond the workplace into social media too. We are all aware that employers or work colleagues can see what we post on social media and may decide to take offence at the expression of Christian views. Consequently, most Christians will not be open about their beliefs on social media, meaning that Christian perspectives are massively underrepresented in the social media world.
An anti-Christian society
I think we have enough evidence to conclude that we are now living in a culture where most people believe that it is justifiable to discriminate against a Christian who expresses orthodox beliefs on marriage or sexual morality. Certainly, most Christians believe this and that is why they are self-censoring the expression of their beliefs. The fact is that it has now become socially acceptable to discriminate against Christians and there are many employers and lawyers who will go to court to justify discriminating against Christians.
Let that sink in for a minute. We are now living in a society where it is socially acceptable to discriminate against Christians. That means we are now living in an anti-Christian society. Christians who want to get jobs will avoid sharing their orthodox Christian beliefs.
There are parallels here with Germany in the 1930s. We know that it is politically incorrect to say certain things, so we refrain from saying them. The difference is that the punishment here in the UK is not government sanction, but societal sanction. Societal sanction is harsh though – Christians are barred from employment, and in at least some cases, losing their bank accounts.
Christian Concern has warned that this is where we are heading for many years. We will continue to warn and to highlight the cases at the tip of the iceberg, and to defend the rights of Christians not to be discriminated against in court as long as we can.
Meanwhile let’s recognise that the culture a shifted and is rapidly becoming more anti-Christian every year. Let’s also note that the attitude of most Christians has subtly shifted too. Most orthodox Christians are no longer out and proud – so to speak. They are keeping quiet, not wishing to attract attention to their beliefs. They know that society is now anti-Christian. Consequently, Christians are cowed.
Who will speak out?
In this cultural moment, it is vital that as many Christians as possible use their voices to speak out and be unashamed about Christian moral values. It is understandable if your job may be at risk, and you have dependents for you to avoid courting controversy. But if you are privileged enough not to have these constraints then you need to speak out and be a voice for those who feel unable to speak.
A key responsibility here falls on pastors and church leaders who need to be taking the lead in being vocal about what is happening in our society. Pastors need to speak out on behalf of their flock and to be a voice that cannot be silenced, since activists cannot easily remove pastors from their jobs. They can also model to other Christians how to do uncompromising cultural engagement.
Here at Christian Concern, we take seriously every opportunity to speak in the public square the truths of the gospel. No activist can report me to my employer for failing to be LGBT affirming! We seek to be a voice for the church. The more voices the better. Please pray for us, for your own voice and for your church leader’s voice too. The Church needs to speak prophetically to a lost and increasingly perverse culture. People are hungry for truth – for a cohesive explanation of the human condition. We have what they want. But they will only hear it if we speak.
Find out more about Felix Ngole