Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre, comments on today’s Court of Appeal judgment in the case of Richard Page.
I often say that law is downstream of culture, so in many ways, the Richard Page judgment should not be a surprise to anyone.
For those who have not followed the case over the last 6 years, I will try to summarise the highlights. Richard was a faithful servant of God, his family and his local community. A father of three children, with a successful career in finance spanning four decades and his later work life dedicated to serving the local community. He did this through church, overseas missions, setting up administration and finance structures for schools and hospitals in developing nations, the magistracy, and by being a non-executive director of his local NHS Trust.
Richard was married to Jane, who sadly passed away last year. She was a counsellor who loved and supported her husband so completely. Together, they had fostered troubled teenagers and been at the heart of reaching out and serving men and women with AIDS when the crisis first broke in the 1980s. Their heart was for the most vulnerable in society and they demonstrated their love by selfless, unseen actions throughout their life together.
Richard was someone that many people would probably never notice, faithfully serving others and not making a fuss. For me, he is a modern-day hero of faith.
No one ever had a problem with Richard until one day, in the magistrates’ retiring room, when he felt he could not ignore his conscience.
Richard, in his quiet manner, stood up for the rights of a child who was the subject of the adoption case before him. He got into so much trouble, that eventually he was sacked from his job as a non-executive director in the NHS and dismissed from being a magistrate. What did he say? He said that children do best with a mother and father. The adoption case involved a male homosexual couple, looking to get round the prohibitions in Northern Ireland by adopting in England. The adoption went through, because Richard was outvoted by his fellow magistrates.
Following this, Richard gave a number of interviews to the media, where he eventually came upon Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in March 2016. During the course of the interview, the ‘worst’ that Richard said, was that he didn’t believe in gay ‘marriage’ nor same-sex adoption.
Following his dismissal from the magistracy and the NHS, Richard took his case to the Employment Tribunal, then the Employment Appeal Tribunal and most recently to the Court of Appeal. As Richard’s case has risen through the courts, they have shown a better, but still insufficient understanding of the rights of Christians and others to speak on important matters in public.
Why? Recently, the courts have increasingly recognised the rights of Christians holding fast to Biblical values. In our case of Felix Ngole, the Court of Appeal recognised the right of a trainee social worker to speak out on Facebook in favour of Kim Davis (an American marriage registrar who refused to register same sex ‘weddings’). In Ashers, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of Christian Bakers in not having to bake a ‘Gay cake’ because that would involve compelled speech. They would bake a cake but could not be compelled to promote a message with which they disagreed.
So what’s so different about Richard? According to the court, this was a legitimate matter of public debate, and he expressed his views temperately. Sadly, it seems that what the court gave with one hand they took away with the other. The court decided that Richard’s rather anodyne comments might have offended some in the LGBTQ+ community to the extent that they might not have used the services of the NHS trust. (I ask the question: who knows who the non-executive directors of your NHS Trust are? Would you not access a service because one of them said something with which you disagree?)
Despite this being a purely speculative risk, with no evidence to support it, the Court of Appeal judges found this to be sufficient reason to find against Richard.
The other difference was that Richard was in a ‘senior position’. Therefore, it appears that there are different rules for ‘lowly’ cake makers and trainee social workers.
However, this judgment goes further than just those in senior positions, it will apply to any believers that work for an ‘institution’, whatever that is, when they choose to express in public their beliefs on matters of ‘particular sensitivity’, again whatever that is.
But so what? Either there is freedom of speech or there isn’t. There can’t be different rules based on social status, class, job, race or religion etc.
The perversity of the ruling is best demonstrated if you consider the converse. Imagine if Richard had ‘come out’ on Piers Morgan’s show and said that he didn’t think that Christians could ever make good parents if they disagreed with same sex ‘marriage’. Would he have been sacked from the NHS? I think not.
Mr Justice Underhill has failed to understand the paramount nature of free speech in a democracy. As Jordan Peterson says “free speech [is the] prerequisite to a civilized society, because freedom of speech means that you can have combat with words… It means that we can engage in combat with words, in the battleground of ideas… and why it’s acceptable that people’s feelings get hurt during that combat, is that the combat of ideas is far preferable to actual combat.” As soon as you start putting little limits here and there on certain people, you are on a very slippery slope. You are on the road to totalitarianism.
Nobody in the end will benefit from Mr Underhill’s judgment, apart from the lawyers. The vague concepts created by this judgment combined with society’s increasing willingness to be ‘offended’ are the perfect recipe for years of happy litigating.
The judgment ends with the same old line that you can believe what you want, but just be careful that when you express your beliefs you don’t upset anyone. Sadly, the law has moved away from the idea that just because someone gets upset when you say something they disagree with, it is not the end of the matter. What would the man on the Clapham omnibus think?
We live in a world where some people are especially sensitive, and increasingly so. There has to be some reasonable standard to ensure society doesn’t play to the lowest common (or most sensitive) denominator.
What should Christians do in the future? Well Mr Underhill suggests that they should ‘decline to answer’. It seems that certain jobs in the future will not be open to Christians or other believers or traditional faiths unless they are prepared to shut up and toe the party line.
Well, not on Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre’s watch. We will seek to appeal this case to the Supreme Court. We will continue to contend. I am hoping the quiet Christians everywhere, in all their everyday day acts of kindness that make up civil society, will not submit to such an unjust law.
We need more Richard Pages. My modern-day hero.
Find out more about Richard Page