Standing in the firing line for us all

21 June 2019

This week, former magistrate Richard Page lost his appeal at the Employment Appeal Tribunal. The ruling could effectively bar Christians from holding positions in public office if they express a Christian view of marriage and family. The battle is not over for Richard; he “remains as faithful as ever to his beliefs and will bring his cases to the Court of Appeal.” Andrea Williams comments on the judgments.

Disappointingly, but not unexpectedly, this past Wednesday Mr Justice Choudhury of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled against Richard Page in his cases against the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor, and against the Kent and Medway NHS Trust. Richard was first punished in 2014 for saying in an adoption matter that a child does best with a mother and a father and eventually removed from his position as a magistrate. He was later also removed from his position as a Non-Executive Director of the NHS Trust for further expressing his belief in media interviews.

As a nation, we should all be very concerned that these rulings may mark another watershed moment in our nation’s history where holding sincere Biblical views can amount to a bar to public office. As Christians, we should do everything in our power to make sure that this is not the case. Richard remains as faithful as ever to his beliefs and will bring his cases to the Court of Appeal.

The real Richard Page

What has perhaps been lost in all of the debate surrounding his cases is the question of who the real Richard Page is. Richard has been supported now by Christian Concern for five years. We have come to know the man, and his heart, well. While detractors, wishing to score cheap campaigning points, try to paint Richard in a one-dimensional light as merely being a homophobic ex-magistrate, nothing could be further from the truth.

Richard is first and foremost a family man. Beyond raising a wonderful family of his own and being a devoted husband, Richard and his wife Jane took in five hard-to-adopt adolescent foster children over the years. Richard also enjoyed a successful career in finance, the talent for which he brought to the NHS as a Non-Executive Director. He also gave back to the community with more than 15 years of exemplary public service as a magistrate, never having been the subject of negative feedback or complaint prior to the circumstances leading to his removal from the bench. Richard, for all intent and purpose, has been a pillar of society.

When approaching his judgments, I would highlight several points which simply do not withstand scrutiny. In legalese, we would refer to these findings as being made in manifest error.

A difference without a distinction

First, both judgments repeat the mantra that Richard was not being punished for what he believed, but the manner in which he expressed that belief. The notion that the manner in which someone expresses a belief and the right to hold a belief are separable however, simply does not withstand scrutiny. It’s a distinction without a difference. It is also not supported by experience; whereby members of the judiciary much more senior than Richard (Lady Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, and Sir James Munby, recently retired President of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales, for example) have made similarly contentious statements in the media and received no sanction. The only difference among them were their viewpoints. The latter were applauded for their ‘progressiveness’ whereas Richard was punished for daring to suggest that a child does best with a mother and a father. Precisely stated, it had nothing to do with the manner in which he made his comments (as the manner he did so has been shared by many others who were never similarly scrutinised); it had everything to do with the belief itself.

Bias is a two-way street

Similarly, it strains credulity to suggest that Richard brought the independence of the judiciary into question or showed inherent bias any more than did Lady Hale, Sir James, or any number of other prominent judges who have shared their beliefs in a public forum. In fact, the seniority of the other judges I have mentioned, because of their prominent public profiles, had a far greater impact over the public perception of the judiciary than Richard ever could.

Following orders

Third, in relation to the NHS judgment, the EAT repeatedly made note of the fact that by doing media interviews, Richard went against a direct order from the Trust to inform them of any media interview he might do concerning his case. The truth is that Richard participated in exactly one media interview after receiving the directive from the Trust. That interview was set up and profiled as a general discussion on intolerance towards Christians and nothing to do specifically with his case. The issue of Richard not following a directive was a very minor part of the original case which has now been conflated exponentially.

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Finally, recalling that Justice Choudhury did not believe Richard’s right to freedom of religion was engaged because he was punished for how he expressed his belief, and not the belief itself, he nonetheless went on to say that had his faith been involved, he would have come to the same finding because the law allows for interference with a belief where a legitimate aim exists. He suggested that because LGBT people suffer disproportionately from mental illness, that Richard’s comments might somehow dissuade them from using the NHS health service. Apart from the absurdity of suggesting that the beliefs of one man in a Non-Executive Directorship would dissuade anyone from seeking medical assistance, the point is also wrong in law.

For the NHS to interfere with Richard’s freedom of religion and belief, it requires much more than merely suggesting that a legitimate aim exists to do so. Proportionality and necessity are also required. There were much more tailored means that the trust could  have utilised to both engage with the patients they say were particularly vulnerable and allow Richard to enjoy his fundamental freedoms of belief and expression. For example, if the trust was concerned, it could have issued a public statement to achieve this balance, reiterating that Richard was speaking in a private capacity and that his opinions were not necessarily shared by the trust and more so, that his position in the trust was wholly separate from any decisions made in relation to patient care.

Best interests of the child standard

What has also been missed in Richard’s case is that as a magistrate in the family division, he was doing exactly what he should have been doing. The law requires the family court, in an adoption matter, to serve the best interests of the child. Far from being just a Christian belief, Richard understood that the unique and complementary gifts brought to parenting by a mother and a father is also a  fact supported by sociology, psychology and biology. This belief had nothing to do with same-sex couples, and everything to do with what is best for a child. While Richard would never judge anyone for who they are or for their personal circumstances – single parent, same-sex parent, or otherwise – he would nevertheless always endeavour to fulfil his judicial oath by doing what he believed was in the best interests of the child being adopted.

As I have said in the past and will repeat here, we should be grateful for Christians like Richard Page who bravely and dutifully stands in the firing lines so that hopefully you will never have to.

Photo by Ruth Towell

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