Andrea Williams comments on Felix Ngole’s case and its wide-reaching ramifications for the freedoms of Christians in all areas of public life.
Felix Ngole puts another face to the increasing alienation of Christians from the public square.
In 2016 he was expelled from the University of Sheffield for expressing support for the biblical view of sexuality during a Facebook discussion.
Yet in an important ruling today, justice prevailed as the High Court granted permission for Felix to judicially review the University’s decision to expel him.
Felix had been removed from his course. His case was dismissed at every stage of the University internal appeals procedure, and his written arguments were dismissed by a Deputy High Court Judge in March 2017.
Without the support of the Christian Legal Centre, Felix would have been left out in the cold, unable to make his case.
It is not just about personal justice for Felix. This case has wide-reaching ramifications for the freedoms of Christians in all areas of public life.
This is not a one-off
Felix should never have been placed in such a position, though his case is not a one-off.
As I write, a member of our legal team is at an internal disciplinary meeting at another university, supporting a would-be nurse whose biblical views on the sanctity of life are under scrutiny. Her fitness to practise is under question because of those deeply-held views.
We know that people all over the world look to the UK as a free nation. Yet Felix Ngole’s case shows an attempt by the authorities to shut down the expression of Christian belief in the very platforms where ideas should be explored freely and without fear of giving offence.
This is our experience in many cases at the Christian Legal Centre.
Facebook is a part of most of our lives. We use it to engage with and debate ideas. It was this medium which Felix used to express support for Kim Davis, the US marriage clerk who expressed a conscientious objection to issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples.
Felix’s beliefs about marriage and sexual ethics reflect mainstream, biblical understanding, shared by millions around the world. In this case, he was expelled from his course simply for expressing solidarity with a foreign political prisoner. This hardly indicates that his views would affect his treatment, as a social worker, of homosexual individuals.
Distinction without difference
Yet Counsel for the University of Sheffield, Sarah Hannett of Matrix Chambers, told the Court that the University’s policy “is not just that the services must be provided without discrimination, but without perception of discrimination, and that required the removal of Mr Ngole from the course.”
She said that using Facebook to express beliefs on marriage and sexuality was not “intimately connected” with the Christian faith.
She continued by arguing that the University did not punish Mr Ngole for his views on same-sex unions, but rather for “the place and the manner” of expressing it on Facebook.
What does this mean? It is a distinction without a difference.
She recognised that Felix had never discriminated against anyone but the possible perception of discrimination by future service users made him unfit to be a social worker.
Bound up in freedom of belief is freedom to share those beliefs with others, and, as Felix Ngole’s Counsel Paul Diamond submitted, the University’s position “is a proxy for saying we don’t like those views“. A similar position can be seen in the cases of Barry Trayhorn, prison worker, and Michael Overd, street preacher, both of whom were punished after quoting from the Bible.
The implication of what Sarah Hannett said is that any Christian expression on sexual ethics, in whatever context – church, social media, social functions could render you unfit to work as a professional because of a perception that you would discriminate. She implies that the Christian viewpoint is unfairly discriminatory of homosexuals. The consequences of this are far-reaching.
Bar to office for Christians
Further education is a time when all students should be helped to explore their beliefs, through interaction and debate. If they are ‘censored’ from even sharing their ideas or beliefs as part of a discussion on Facebook, then how can that happen? The University’s treatment of Felix violates its responsibilities under human rights legislation, and fails to protect his freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
If the personal statements of students on their own social media pages are now to be used to judge whether they are ‘fit and proper people’ to serve in professions such as law, medicine, teaching and social work, then very serious questions need to be asked about freedom in the UK.
This position effectively creates a bar to office for Christians, amounting to a secret policing of Christian belief.
This increases the pressure on University students, and Christians more broadly, to keep quiet and present themselves in a way that seems reasonable and acceptable. But this cannot be our approach. It cannot be compassionate or effective to rob society of the opportunity to hear the life-changing and life-giving message of the gospel.
As Standing Counsel to the Christian Legal Centre, Paul Diamond, told the Court: “The duty of the courts is to control those bodies [universities], to ensure that the freedom continues, and that due process of law is followed. The free speech in this country is getting narrower and narrower, and I submit that now is the moment for the judiciary to start standing up for it.”
Although today’s decision is a step in the right direction the kind of censorship seen here raises huge issues for freedom for Christians to live and speak out their faith. At many stages of this case Felix could have given up and retreated quietly with no one ever knowing what had happened to him.
Here at the Christian Legal Centre, day in day out, we fight to protect the fundamental freedoms that are under siege.
Christian student granted judicial review after being expelled for views on sexuality
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