Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, comments on the case of Seyi Omooba.
For her first three years after university, Seyi Omooba was a rising star of the musical theatre. Her professional debut in a West End musical was described by reviewers as “jaw-droppingly good,” with “ferocious gospel vocals” which “pin you to your seat.” She was “someone to watch.”
Three years on, in March 2019, Leicester Curve Theatre was proud to announce the cast for its production of The Colour Purple musical with Seyi in the lead role: “an actress of immense power and she leads a formidable ensemble of astonishing talent; they are set to blow the roof off Leicester.”
Only a week later, Curve tore up its contract with her. Seyi’s own agent followed its example a few days after, and all theatrical doors were henceforward slammed to her face. For them, it seemed to matter not that her destiny now was to sit alone in her room and ponder just how seriously she should take the latest death threat.
The reason? Her Christian beliefs about human sexuality – which became known from a 4-year-old Facebook post she wrote as a 20-year-old student, now uncovered by an industrious heckler.
The Employment Tribunal has now given its stamp of official approval to everything the Theatre and the Agency have done to Seyi. Moreover, the Tribunal has concluded it was unreasonable for her even to complain, and on that basis, ordered her to pay the full legal costs incurred by her opponents – estimated to be an extraordinary £350,000. The Employment Tribunal is meant to be a costs free forum – each side bears its own costs.
The costs they are asking for are 15 times more than the usual costs of defending a Tribunal case, which is rather difficult to square with their premise that her case was so hopeless that it was unreasonable for her to pursue it. They were so concerned about it that they hired the most expensive solicitor firms, a specialist QC and senior counsel to defend what they now try to make out was a hopeless case.
The Tribunal joined in for good measure.
Indeed, Seyi’s case is not merely another example of anti-Christian censorship and discrimination in modern Britain. It throws a dramatic limelight on the darker depths of 21st century totalitarianism. Where stabbing a colleague in the back is not merely within the norm, but a professional duty. Where, having once deviated in your mind from the ideological orthodoxy, you cannot trust anyone or anything: even a favourite book of your adolescence may be suddenly re-interpreted to become an indictment against you.
This was an unusual case for Christian Legal Centre, with unusual strengths and unusual weaknesses. On one view, this should have been simply an open and shut case of unlawful religious discrimination. Seyi was dismissed because of her Christian beliefs, and that is the end of the matter – the law does not accept any excuses for that. However, because Seyi’s legal case was so strong, it was fought very fiercely by the woke Establishment. Because it was fought so fiercely, it takes some time to uncover the true story under the layers of ferocious propaganda.
In dozens of other cases, employers dismiss or censor Christians for expressing their beliefs (labelled ‘homophobic’, ‘transphobic’, ‘Islamophobic’ or just ‘proselytising’) as a knee-jerk response, without much thinking or legal advice. Standing up to them, and especially a threat of a legal action, takes them by surprise, and often causes them either to back down or to offer money in exchange for confidentiality. Even if that is refused and the case ends up in court, employers mostly attempt to muddle through the embarrassing process as quickly and quietly as possible.
It was not so in Seyi’s case, where the Respondents (Curve Theatre and Global Artists agency) ran their own PR campaign, drumming up support from the vociferous movement of ‘LGBTQ+ and allies’, and hired aggressive heavyweight barristers to attempt a very public character assassination in the witness box. The resulting narrative is that Seyi was the author of her own misfortune, by carelessly accepting an “iconic lesbian” role without knowing what she was doing. All she had to do was to read the script. Failing to do that was grossly unprofessional. No wonder this ended her career.
How easy it is to muddy the clearest waters where there is a will to do so. In this case, the false narrative is created by a combination of two simple tricks. First, pay no attention to the real causes and effects, to how and why people acted at the time – just select some ‘dirt’ from what the person tells about herself, throw that dirt back at her, and declare that the dirt is ‘the point’. Second, ignore the chronology – present your facts in the order best suited to create the right impression.
The truth, however, is easy to see if you have the patience to re-trace the full story from the beginning.
The person behind Exhibit One
On 18 September 2014, amidst the nationwide debate following the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, Seyi Omooba (then a 20-year-old student) posted this:
“Some Christians have completely misconceived the issue of Homosexuality, they have begun to twist the word of God. It is clearly evident in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 what the Bible says on this matter. I do not believe you can be born gay, and I do not believe homosexuality is right, though the law of this land has made it legal doesn’t mean it is right. I do believe that everyone sins and falls into temptation but it’s by the asking of forgiveness, repentance and the grace of God that we overcome and live how God ordained us to. Which is that a man should leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Genesis 2:24. God loves everyone, just because He doesn’t agree with your decisions doesn’t mean He doesn’t love you. Christians we need to step up and love but also tell the truth of God’s word. I am tired of lukewarm Christianity, be inspired to stand up for what you believe and the truth #our God is three in one #God (Father) #Jesus Christ (Son) #Holy Spirit.”
Seyi’s doom was that she lived in two seemingly incompatible worlds. Her beliefs are just commonplace in the world of her church and family. However, in the professional world of musical theatre, they are seen as self-evidently monstrous – something to be shunned, not debated. When the chips were down, nobody in the theatre industry was surprised that she was dismissed for her beliefs. Rather, everybody was astonished how, with those beliefs, she could survive in the profession for the previous three years.
Seyi’s family needs little introduction. Her father, Rev. Ade Omooba MBE, is a well-known champion of Christian causes in this country and internationally. In his evidence to the Tribunal, Pastor Ade explained at some length how his daughter had grown up in the Christian faith. He told the Tribunal:
“Nigerian Christians tend to be uncompromising and bold on matters of faith and morality. We take the words of God literally, and as imperative in all areas of life. Historically, this is the spirit we acquired from the English missionaries who spread Christianity in Nigeria and founded some of the country’s best schools with core Christian principles. Paradoxically, when we came to the UK in modern times, we were disappointed to find that in this country, the Gospel is being watered down on a number of points – indeed, whenever it conflicts with the fashionable ideas of the day. It was essentially for this reason that the Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion separated from Canterbury – the Church of England – many years ago. Nigerian Christians tend to take an uncompromising stance on issues of morality, such as abortion, sexual purity, and sanctity of marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman.
“The sanctity of marriage is particularly prominent in the Nigerian Christian’s mentality because a few generations ago, under the pagan religion, we were a polygamous society in many parts. The change to life-long unions between one man and one woman was a major societal change associated with our conversion to Christianity. It is not possible to separate family from faith in our minds.
“This context is important to understand Seyi’s upbringing and her beliefs. She grew up as a member of an extended family where divorces, abortions, adulteries, or children born out of wedlock, were all unheard of – at least in the latest four generations, which adhered to the Christian faith. Like her brother and sister, Seyi was brought up as a stranger to the idea of any sexual relations except in a life-long marriage between one man and one woman.
“Our attitudes to homosexuality must be viewed in this context of Christian belief in wider sexual purity. We read the Bible, where homosexual acts and the likes are mentioned as one of the many things we must not engage in. However, as Christians, we do not have any special appetite to debate homosexuality. The only reason why Christians such as Seyi ever get involved in those debates is because the UK government has magnified the issue by passing legislation on this as well as introducing various policies to ensure ‘LGBT equality’. Consequently, Christians who stick to their beliefs on sexual ethics are often attacked for being out of tune and have to defend our beliefs.”
Against this background, from an early age, Seyi showed a brilliant gift for singing and dancing. As a child, she enjoyed remarkable successes in church productions, and as the only solo singer on a ‘kids praise’ album in primary school. She perfected her art over years, and naturally, in due course chose a career in musical theatre.
The problem, which she did not then realise, was that the musical theatre has come to be dominated and greatly defined and influenced by ‘gay culture’, where active support for ‘LGBT Pride’ is no more than a requirement of decency. The challenge for Seyi was to survive and succeed in that world while staying true to her Christian faith.
From her point of view, initially she managed that well. Everybody knew she was a devout Christian. Nor did she make any secret of her ‘conservative’ views on sexual ethics. She did not refuse to participate in some plays which featured homosexuality, but she had told her agent, early on, that there were things she was unwilling to do on stage: mock religion, participate in sexually explicit scenes, or play lesbian characters. If that meant missing a lot of career opportunities, so be it. She was always kind to numerous ‘LGBT’ colleagues she worked with, and was under the impression that they were kind to her. Indeed, her Facebook post was directly inspired by the first experiences of navigating that environment. Hence were those thoughts about loving the sinners though not the sin.
At the end of the 2018 Little Shop of Horrors production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the whole cast was supposed to participate in a filming of a ‘Pride video’. Seyi told the stage manager during the rehearsals that she was a Christian and therefore could not do it. She therefore stayed in her dressing room. At the time, she thought she had resolved the situation in the spirit of mutual respect, but (it transpired later) there were those who carefully noted her disloyal behaviour. The thought police were already at work.
The Colour Purple
The Colour Purple is a novel by Alice Walker about the hard life of a black girl in the American South in early 20th century. The heroine, Celie, is treated cruelly by everyone, constantly abused and raped, first by her father, then by her husband. Celie is deeply traumatised by the cruelty of the world, but eventually overcomes and finds peace. The novel was dramatised as a film by Steven Spielberg, and later as a musical. In the long chain of Celie’s sexual misfortunes, there are hints of a lesbian romance with a cabaret singer – the lover of her cruel husband.
Apart from the obvious point about black girls being treated abominably in the Southern states in those times, what the author is trying to say is rather ambiguous. The interpretation whereby a lesbian romance is the answer to all misfortunes of life is by no means obvious. It is equally plausible to read the novel as saying that the answer is Christianity, and/or family kinship (the novel is quite sentimental about Celie’s affection for her sister).
Spielberg’s film pretty much ignores the lesbian hints. When grilled by the media about that later, Mr Spielberg made no apology for the fact. Whoopie Goldberg, who played Celie in the film, is on record as stating categorically that the character “has nothing to do with lesbianism.” The ‘LGBT’ public opinion was unhappy with the earlier productions of the musical for continuing in the same tradition.
It so happened that Seyi read The Colour Purple while she was at school, and understood it in a Christian sense rather than in a lesbian sense. She liked the fact that Celie was writing letters to God, and even followed her example by writing her own letters to God.
In 2017, Seyi performed, with much success, as Celie’s sister in a concert version of the musical.
In late 2018, Seyi was invited to audition for the same role in the forthcoming production of The Colour Purple by the Curve Theatre. At the audition, the director asked her if she would “have a go” at the ‘big song’ of the lead character. Seyi tried, was rather unhappy with her attempt, but the director was impressed enough to offer her the role of Celie. That was a star role, difficult to refuse for an actress of only three years’ experience. Seyi accepted. Neither party thought it necessary to discuss at that stage how the play would be interpreted and what to do about the lesbian romance.
The theatre announced the cast on 14 March 2019. In response to the theatre’s announcement, an actor called Aaron Lee Lambert immediately tweeted a screenshot of Seyi’s 2014 Facebook post, and demanded:
“@Seyiomooba Do you still stand by this post? Or are you happy to remain a hypocrite? Seeing as you’ve now been announced to be playing an LGBTQ character, I think you owe your LGBTQ peers an explanation. Immediately.”
The process of ‘cancelling’ began. Everyone accepts that the ensuing campaign on social media was extremely nasty. The chief executive of the theatre, Chris Stafford, told the Tribunal that “a lot” of social media posts were “spiteful, hateful and insulting” of Seyi. That was not a campaign of theatrical criticism about Seyi’s suitability for the role of Celie. The mob was outraged that Seyi, with her ‘homophobic’ beliefs, was allowed to be in the musical theatre at all and demanded that she must be hounded out of the profession. The campaign was such that Mr Stafford and others were seriously concerned that the mob would organise a violent physical attack on her, and possibly others, in the theatre, and organise it so well that no amount of security staff could avert the risk. There were racist posts, sexist posts, obscenities, and death threats. There was absolute intolerance and hatred of the beliefs set out in Seyi’s post, of anyone who holds those beliefs, and of anyone remotely associated with someone who holds such beliefs.
In that context, a fellow actor from Little Shop of Horrors, Julian Hault, shared his reminiscences of how “both myself and others were very uncomfortable with her viewpoints” when “she wasn’t part of the London pride video because ‘she didn’t agree with it’, she was the only cast member to decline and hid upstairs in one of the smaller studios.”
“I knew this would all eventually come to light,” Mr Hault commented, “but I personally didn’t want it in this way, I wanted to see growth and education on her part.”
Mr Stafford told the Tribunal that this revelation was “particularly damaging” because it showed the Facebook post was not a one-off, and Seyi’s beliefs did not change.
This is the true context of Seyi’s dismissal a few days later. It was not about The Colour Purple – which was no more than a PR ‘peg’ for that campaign, chosen by her enemies for tactical reasons. The campaign was about her beliefs, which were seen as self-evidently indefensible for anyone in the musical theatre. Certain moderates were willing to give her time to renounce her beliefs in the process of “growth and education.” However, there were others, who openly said on social media that they would “never forgive” her, whatever apology she might now offer.
In event, she made no apology for her beliefs – and that sealed her fate.
The Curve Theatre simply had the misfortune of being her employer at that moment – and therefore the principal target of the campaign. On 21 March 2019, the Curve and its co-producer, Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre, issued the following statement:
“On Friday 15 March a social media post dating from 2014, which was written by The Colour Purple cast member Seyi Omooba, was re-posted on Twitter. The comments made by Seyi in that post have caused significant and widely expressed concerns both in the social media and in the wider press.
“Following careful reflection it has been decided that Seyi will no longer be involved with the production… The audition process… was conducted professionally and rigorously… We do not operate a social media screening process in the casting of actors.”
The theatre made no attempt to distance themselves from the “spiteful, hateful and insulting” aspects of the campaign, from racist abuse, from obscenities and threats. Conversely, the statement included no hint of cordiality towards Seyi, such as good wishes for the future.
On 24 March 2019, Seyi’s agents, Global Artists, also terminated their contract with her, unilaterally and without notice. They made no public statement, but by a sheer coincidence (according to the Tribunal’s findings), within 24 hours a journalist tried to find Seyi on their website, discovered she was not there, and published a story to tell the world about this.
One of the many expressions of the public’s ‘significant concerns’ was an email to the Global Artists agency which cannot be quoted without a redaction:
“A black woman who is homophobic?? I hope she rots in no-peace. She’s done what she hoped to achieve by hopefully real live will shove a bomb in her c**t… I would! ANY OFFERS.”
After Seyi’s ex-agent vividly told the Tribunal how shocked everyone at the agency was by that message, the director, Michael Garrett, was cross-examined by Seyi’s representative at the trial:
Q: You didn’t report this email to the police, did you?
Q: Why not?
A: Because I think that the mass, the mass of social media and emails were… Well, it was so strong that, I think, even though this was probably the strongest of all comments made, it sat with a large number of other comments, and I had to make it… I think we decided that we would just… We would take a view over it over… over time.
Q: It is a death threat, isn’t it?
A: It is. And it’s very offensive.
Q: And does it often happen that you receive death threats?
A: No, this situation is the first time we’ve ever been through anything like this, so this is an isolated and a one off in 24 years.
Q: I’m going to suggest to you that the reason you wouldn’t report this to the police was because you were so afraid of appearing to associate yourself with the claimant as against her critics that, even in this extreme situation…
A: Firmly, the answer is no, that is untrue, and also offensive.
Tom Coghlin QC (Counsel for the Theatre): Madam, that strikes me as being an utterly improper suggestion, it should be withdrawn.
That suggestion has not been withdrawn. Both the Theatre and the Global Artists were very careful not to add more fuel into the fire than they had to, but at the same time, to avoid the slightest suspicion that they were on Seyi’s side in any sense.
Casting actors, casting stones
The CEO of Curve Theatre, Mr Stafford, gave very detailed evidence to the Tribunal about the process of reaching his decision to dismiss Seyi. He spoke at length about what he thought when he laid awake during the night of 16 March, what he thought when he woke up on Sunday 17 March, etc. In evidence, he said he was even willing to “take the risk” of ‘forgiving’ Seyi for her Facebook post – provided of course that she would fully renounce her beliefs, and convincingly apologise for them.
However, the whole point of a totalitarian campaign is to terrorise people into joining it by targeting those not zealous enough. People who work nearest to the victim are automatically suspects and have to acquit themselves promptly by a convincing show of outrage. In this anti-Gospel, if you are too slow to throw a stone, you are a traitor, and the next in line to be stoned. From the outset, the social media mob was ‘calling out’ (among others) the Curve Theatre, for failing to deal with ‘the homophobe’ swiftly and ruthlessly. Indeed, having harboured and promoted her in the first place, they surely owed their LGBTQ peers an explanation. Immediately.
One of the many articles published in the theatrical media in those few days is illustrative, although by no means the most extreme. “[T]he defining factor of who gets to play what role can never be just talent,” wrote Alice Saville, the editor of Exeunt Magazine,
“because casting decisions send messages that ripple far beyond the theatre walls. Omooba might have changed her mind since she made that post (although the fact that three days have passed without her issuing a retraction suggests that any move towards openmindedness on her part is still tentative) but the decision to cast her still sends an undeniable message to queer audiences… [O]ur queer female actors (especially masculine-of-centre ones) are hugely underrepresented in the world of commercial theatre… Maybe, somehow, this production genuinely wasn’t able to find someone who was able to be a queer role model. But as a bare minimum, I’d hope that someone cast as one of literature’s most famous queer women would be an ally. And by ally, I don’t mean anything wishy washy about thinking it’s okay to be gay. I mean someone who’s got a proven track record of doing the work. This means publicly supporting the community at times when it might conceivably cost them something: speaking out for trans rights, or in the battle to keep LGBT+ education in primary schools, would be a good start.”
Ms Saville then lamented “the long tradition of erasing and muting the queer themes” in The Colour Purple, citing both Spielberg’s film and an earlier production of the musical as examples; and suggested that the casting of Seyi meant that the Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome were planning to take the same approach.
“And worryingly, the ticketing page for The Colour Purple does not even mention the words ‘lesbianism’, ‘queerness’, or even the copyrighters’ usual cop-out of choice, ‘LGBT+ themes’. Its tagline is ‘the unforgettable story of personal awakening’, presumably because ‘sexual awakening’ might sound a bit, well, gay.”
Countless other articles and posts also challenged the Theatre to prove its innocence: to prove they were not merely wishy-washy allies of the LGBTQ+; that their own open-mindedness was better than just tentative; that they cast Seyi by mistake, not because they secretly tolerated her beliefs, and not because they were secretly planning yet another homophobic production a la Spielberg. The term “theatrical conversion therapy” was not yet used (it required the genius of Chris Milsom, the barrister for Global Artists Agency, to coin it in his cross-examination of Seyi), but the theatre was already under suspicion of being part of a conspiracy with Seyi to commit that atrocity against her character.
It was at that point – and no earlier – that the Theatre began to declare that it intended to stage The Colour Purple as an “iconic lesbian” work, with lots of intimate scenes to convey its true message to the audience. The first time they told so to Seyi was in the letter informing her of her dismissal on 21 March 2019, where Mr Stafford asserted, among other things, that the whole point of the production was “to challenge views, including the view that homosexuality is a sin.”
This deserves emphasis: not a single word was written or said, by anyone in the production team, to Seyi or to anybody else, about staging The Colour Purple in an ‘iconic lesbian’ interpretation – not until the social media crusade to ‘cancel’ Seyi began on 15 March 2019. After that, however, everyone involved promptly jumped on the bandwagon, to swear their own allegiance to the politically correct interpretation of the play as opposed to the wishy-washy one, and to throw their own stone at Seyi to prove their loyalty. The director, Tinuke Craig, wrote a statement saying she had “no intention of shying away from the lesbian relationship at the heart of the story” and could not stage the play as she wanted with Seyi in the lead role. Similar statements were made by the artistic director, the musical director, and the actress who would play the seductive cabaret singer. It is documented that organising the drafting of such statements was organised centrally by the theatre’s artistic director Nikolai Foster, who made sure he was thinking positively about the problem, and made up his mind to get rid of Seyi very soon after the campaign began. “I think the positive press we will receive for standing up for what is right for our theatre will do Curve no end of good,” he wrote in an email to colleagues on 16 March:
“Without being cynical, all publicity is good publicity and this will hopefully help the box office enormously when we triumphantly announce the non-homophobic new Celie!”
Eventually (a few months later, in response to Seyi’s discrimination claim) the theatre also obtained a statement from the author of the novel, Alice Walker, and another one from the authors of the musical. Both statements confirmed that the authors had always meant Celie to be lesbian, the whole point of the story was to challenge Christian sexual ethics, Seyi could not have possibly played the role, and should now abandon her legal action if she has any decency.
Confronted with that impressive collection of statements, Seyi conceded in her evidence to the Tribunal:
“At the end of the day, it is for the author to say what she means by her work. If she says that Celie is a lesbian, I do not feel I can argue with that, and I accept that my interpretation was mistaken.
“At the time I was offered the part of Celie, nobody indicated to me in any way that the authors, or the director, or the theatre, intended Celie to be portrayed as a lesbian, or to interpret the play as one about lesbian love.
“It is difficult to say what would have happened if I was not removed from the cast. The interpretation of a play and of characters would only fully develop during the rehearsals. If the director insisted that the play must be a play about lesbian love, and/or that she wants Celie to be portrayed as a lesbian character, I would have had to pull out.”
Why was Seyi dismissed?
In cross-examination at the trial, the theatre’s barrister dragged Seyi through all the passages in the book and in the script which had sexually explicit lesbian hints in them. Seyi repeated her admission that she must have been wrong, and the author right, about the interpretation of the play. It was at that point that she also admitted that she did not fully read the script at the time she accepted the role. She had read and loved the book, and she had read the script when she played Celie’s sister in a different production in 2017. When she was suddenly offered the role of Celie in late 2018, she flipped through the book in various parts, but mostly focused on rehearsing Celie’s ‘big song’ – since her first attempt to sing it had secured her the role, but left herself unsatisfied. Of course, she would have read the full script later, but her preparations for the rehearsals in May were cut short by the fatal scandal in March 2019.
How could she overlook those passages when she read the book at school, and when she read the script for a different role? With hindsight, that was naïve of her. But isn’t it the case that readers’ minds tend to be selective? In the same book where an anxious inquirer will readily find a dozen transparent hints at same-sex fantasies, a more naïve schoolgirl (especially, an ‘innocent’ Christian girl) would quite easily skip over issues of sexuality and focus on other issues raised, including religion, family relationships and race.
Much was made of her failure to re-read the full script before coming for auditions, and then accepting the new role. Of course, it is possible that some other actors are at times guilty of similar behaviour, but Seyi is the only one who has admitted to it. All the Respondents’ witnesses assured the Tribunal in unison that such extravagancy is completely unheard of in their trade. If they say so, that must be right. Right?
Even so, does this fact really vindicate everything they have done to Seyi?
Further, as a matter of fact, she was not dismissed (and hounded out of the profession) for failing to read the script. The people who did it knew nothing at the time as to whether she had read the script or not – nor were they interested. Likewise, none of them knew (or cared to inquire) whether or not she interpreted Celie as a lesbian character, or whether she was willing to play her as a lesbian character. Nor had anyone told her that their red line was that this production would play her as explicitly lesbian.
After all, the actress’s job is to play someone different from herself, and for all they knew, she might be “happy to remain a hypocrite” as Mr Lambert chose to put it in his ‘call out’. ‘Hypocrite’, translated from Greek, means simply ‘actor’.
All the theatre knew at the time were Seyi’s beliefs – and dismissed her for that reason. The cross-examination of Mr Stafford on that point was illuminating:
Q: So, Mr Stafford, I think we’ve agreed earlier that the crucial question for your decision-making was whether Miss Omooba still believed what she had written in the post. We have agreed on that, haven’t we?
Q: And we’ve also agreed that the post is an expression of her beliefs, haven’t we?
Q: From these two points which we’ve just agreed, it follows, does it not, that you dismissed Miss Omooba for her religious beliefs?
A: No, I did not dismiss her for her religious beliefs, I dismissed her for the effect of her religious beliefs being in the public domain…
The heresy trial
The law accepts no excuses for dismissing someone because of their religious beliefs (or, for that matter, race, sex, or sexual orientation). The fact that there was an intolerant mob which aggressively demanded such discrimination is not a defence.
The defences pleaded by the Curve Theatre and the Global Artists Agency were numerous; most notably:
- They denied that Seyi’s beliefs were worthy of respect in a democratic society, and of legal protection.
- They denied that Seyi’s words “I do not believe that you can be born gay” were an expression of a religious belief; and those words were allegedly the real problem. That contention did not go very far, because both Mr Stafford and Mr Garrett had to admit in cross-examination that from their point of view, the Facebook post would be just as bad without those words – they made no difference.
- By a last-minute amendment of their case, the Theatre argued that Seyi secretly wanted to be dismissed, because she was unwilling to play a lesbian character anyway. She worked with Christian Concern to trick the Theatre into dismissing her, so as to manufacture a high-profile case exposing censorship. The Theatre’s barrister seriously argued that Seyi in fact suffered no detriment from being dismissed – on the contrary, she got what she wanted. There was no evidence to support that conspiracy theory, and unsurprisingly, the Tribunal did not accept it.
- It was argued that the requirement “not to have expressed such beliefs” as Seyi’s was a ‘genuine occupational requirement’ of an actor’s job, similar to a requirement for an actor playing Othello to be male and black.
- It was also argued that the real reasons for Seyi’s dismissal had nothing to do with her beliefs. The Theatre’s reasons were to secure the commercial success, artistic integrity, and overall viability of the show, maintaining its standing “as an important LGBTQ work of art,” minimising adverse publicity, protecting its reputation, and ensuring harmony between different cast members. The agency’s reasons were protecting its reputation, maintaining relationships with its other clients and others in the theatrical world, and protecting Seyi’s own welfare.
The difficulty with that last argument is that it ignores the distinction, well-known in discrimination law, between the discriminatory act and the discriminator’s motives. The motives may be entirely benign; but that is no defence. When Amnesty International refused to appoint a Sudanese employee as its researcher for Sudan, it was motivated by genuine concerns about its reputation for neutrality and about the man’s own safety if he had to travel to Sudan. However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that to be racial discrimination (Amnesty International v Ahmed  UKEAT 0447_08_1308). A Jewish school which gave priority to children of matrilineal descent from a Jewish woman was motivated by compliance with the Judaic law; but was still guilty of racial discrimination, according to the House of Lords (R(E) v JFS  2 AC 728). Likewise, in Seyi’s case, her Christian beliefs were evidently the ultimate reason why the various commercial and reputational motives weighed against her in the Respondents’ minds.
So, amidst this extraordinary cascade of defences, their only argument of any real legal substance was the first one: that her beliefs were so outrageous that they were not ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. Indeed, this is where the Respondents concentrated their fire in their aggressive two-day-long cross-examination of Seyi at the trial. In principle, a heresy trial of this kind is not permitted by law (R(Williamson) v Secretary of State  2 AC 246, paragraphs 22-23); but they did it anyway, despite repeated objections from Pavel Stroilov, the Claimant’s representative:
Q: I think your evidence is that your belief that homosexual desire, even if unacted upon, is sinful, is a belief, but those who think the opposite just have feelings. Is that right?
A: No what I’m saying is that my Christian faith, which means the word of God which I follow, is that homosexual practice is wrong and sinful. You having feelings, if you lust after someone of the same sex, is also a sin. You having feelings is a temptation – it is not sinful.
Q: Right, I’m going to suggest as well that there’s another belief buried within your message.
A: No there isn’t.
Q: You refer to lukewarm Christianity, and I’m going to suggest that there’s such a thing as lukewarm Christians in your view. Those that might regard gay love as perfectly compatible with Christianity. There are Christians out there who believe that, aren’t there?
A: Well, I guess there would be some people, I don’t know.
Q: And they would point for example to the fact that, in 66 books in the Bible, Jesus does not utter a word about homosexuality in any of them. That’s right, isn’t it?
A: Well, it’s not true, because you can’t take the Old Testament without the New Testament. It talks – the whole of the Bible in Leviticus, in Romans, in Matthew – it talks about the commandments of how you should not, it is an abomination to be homosexual, it’s wrong. And Jesus says even if you lust after someone – you don’t even have to practice – even if you lust in your mind after someone that you want to lust in your mind after someone, it is a sin, so He does talk about it.
Q: In any one of the 66 books of the Bible, does Jesus personally say…
Employment Judge Goodman: I don’t think we need to consider the detail of why the Christians… the claimant holds this belief.
Q: The agreed list of issues refers to your belief in the truth of the Bible. The literal truth. You don’t cherry pick the bits of the Bible that you like and those that you don’t.
Q: (…) Exodus 35:2 states: “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh days should be your holy day, a day of Sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death”. Prior to the pandemic, there were Matilda Sunday performances over many months. So, believing in the literal truth of the Bible would extend to a belief that the cast of Matilda should be put to death.
A: Well no, because… Are they Christians? I don’t know because I can’t say that. I don’t know what you mean that they should be put to death because they can work on a Sunday? That doesn’t mean they should be put to death. It’s their decision whether they want to work on Sundays.
Pavel Stroilov (Claimant’s Representative): I’m afraid this is with respect inappropriate at many levels, this question. It is contrary to the authority of Williamson, it is not relevant to any of the issues, and my learned friend has assured the tribunal earlier this is not where his questions were going.
Employment Judge Goodman: I want to see where this is going because it may not be about the claimant’s beliefs.
Chris Milson (Counsel for Global Artists): It isn’t. Those who take the literal truth of Exodus on its face might have put it on Facebook that the cast of Matilda should be put to death. Are you saying that Global Artists would have been bound to continue representing that individual?
Employment Judge Goodman: I don’t think the claimant was saying that homosexuals should be put to death.
So it went on, with Seyi’s beliefs, and the Bible itself, sarcastically deconstructed for a good part of two days, culminating in a submission that those beliefs were not worthy of respect in a democratic society. Seyi withstood that bizarre heresy trial with remarkable grace and courage. In its judgment, the Tribunal grudgingly concluded:
“While wholly understanding why the statement of the claimant’s beliefs was deeply offensive to people of same sex orientation, as well as to those of other orientations and none, we could not go so far as to say that merely stating the belief was not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”
Still, they could not let her ‘win’. In the end, they just accepted that the Respondents’ reasons had nothing to do with her beliefs – those were just commercial and reputational concerns. The judgment simply ignores the distinction between ‘reasons’ and ‘motives’ in discrimination law, and the submissions made about that on Seyi’s behalf.
At the conclusion of the trial, the Tribunal issued an extraordinary injunction ordering Christian Concern to remove all documents and witness statements from this case from our website immediately.
Following that precaution, the aggressive PR machine of the ‘allies’ of ‘the community’ swung into motion to hammer the Respondents’ version of this case into the public’s heads.
‘Thou art not Caesar’s friend’
I have told the story at such length because it dramatically illustrates some important and frightening truths about the times we live in. A mere rebuttal of the false narrative about Seyi’s own case could be a lot shorter. To summarise:
- The case was not about her suitability for a particular role in a particular play. She was ‘cancelled’ altogether; the express demand of the mob was to hound her out of the profession. It happened to be up to her closest colleagues at the time – the Curve Theatre and the Global Artists agency – to oblige or not. They fully obliged.
- At the time of her dismissal nobody knew or cared whether Seyi had read the script, and whether she would be willing to play the character as a lesbian one. All the decision-makers knew or cared about were her Christian beliefs, as evidenced by her four-year-old Facebook post, which she refused to retract.
- Nobody told her in advance that they intended to stage The Colour Purple as an ‘iconic lesbian work of art’ instead of the usual ‘theatrical conversion therapy’ a la Spielberg. It is possible they did not even know that themselves – not until the mob demanded it making it clear that that those who gave the wrong answer would be cancelled. Other than that, artistic freedom reigned supreme!
Seyi’s story is about trying to live and let live in the 21st century. Can you give Caesar his due but stay true to your faith? Can a young Christian survive and succeed in a profession dominated by ‘the LGBTQ+ community and allies’, simply by being kind, respectful, and tolerant towards them, but at the same time, remain what she is?
Seyi herself is convinced this is possible. Her earlier experience was that a lot of people in the profession knew about her beliefs, disagreed, and yet respected them. She does not abandon this view even after the experience of this case, where the industry has closed ranks to ‘cancel’ her, and then the media and the judiciary joined the united front. One thing that is clear is that the modern Caesar demands a lot more than is his due. If you are anything less than a true ‘ally’ of ‘the community’, all you deserve is to have all professional doors slammed at your face. Moreover, it is for you to prove you are a true ally. That includes, where necessary, a retraction of Christian beliefs, a convincing apology for them, and a show of hatred against every other dissenter. Such is the price of professional success in our times. Seyi refused to pay it.
Nowadays, none of us are safe from a similar test being suddenly imposed on us when we least expect it. God help us to pass it as faithfully and graciously as she did.
The latest twist in the sorry tale, that is worthy of a novel or a musical (the end is not yet written) is that the barristers for the Theatre and Agency have come after Seyi for £350K costs.
An employment tribunal is meant to be a cost-free forum. For the other side to apply for and have granted a £350,000 costs order is unprecedented and deliberately punitive. It is designed to frighten and put off others from seeking justice.
Lawyers for the theatre and agency falsely insinuate a vexatious campaign by Christian Concern when all we have sought to do is serve Seyi and the truth.
The Tribunal has effectively joined the campaign of ‘cancelling’ Seyi for her Christian beliefs. She and we are not intimidated and have appealed this shocking judgment which is a travesty of reality.
At Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre we will continue to represent every Seyi that comes our way and we will not rest until justice is done and faith restored in public life.
Find out more about Seyi Omooba