A Christian Conservative councillor has been exonerated after defending herself against code of conduct allegations following her refusal to back a Pride event grant.
Mary Douglas, who has been a Conservative councillor in Salisbury for 15 years, was removed from her portfolio role for skills and social mobility in November 2019 as a result of the stance she took against the use of public funds to support a Pride event.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, last week Cllr Douglas challenged the council’s controversial decision to bring code of conduct proceedings against her on the questionable allegation that she acted in a manner which contravened the public sector equality duty.
Following the hearing, the council concluded that Cllr Douglas had the right under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights to express opposition in her statement.
The council also found that Cllr Douglas did have due regard for the public sector equality duty.
In written submissions, her representative had argued that Cllr Douglas was opposing the political message of the gay pride event and the use of public funds to support it. Her opposition was not to the people involved, but to the message being promoted.
The submission went on to criticise the Council’s decision to challenge her political deliberations and her freedom of political speech without providing a lawful and legitimate aim for doing so.
The submission concluded:
“Both sets of beliefs, those which support the LGBT campaigning worldview here represented by the grant proposal in question, and those which rest on dissenting philosophical, moral and religious convictions, enjoy equal protection under the law.”
‘We must be able to say what we think’
Responding to the outcome, Cllr Douglas said: “I am relieved and thankful for this outcome. The consequences of not coming to this conclusion would have been untenable and deeply concerning for freedom of speech and expression for elected officials.
“If the council had found against me, it would have set a precedent that I and other public officials are not allowed to disagree with groups of people, events or political messages with which we disagree. Such a verdict would effectively end conversation, debate and the ability to express a belief and opinion.
“I said what I did, not because I don’t love people who identify as LGBT, but because I do. I made the statement because I didn’t just want to reject the grant application, I wanted people to understand why. I do not agree with the political message of gay pride, and should have the right to say so.
“To disagree is not to disrespect. In fact, to take the trouble to express disagreement with someone is a mark of respect. Across UK society, we must be able to disagree with each other while also holding each other in the highest esteem. To be able to say what we think and believe is vital for democracy, community cohesion and good decision making.”
‘I cannot support this’
On Monday 4 November 2019, Cllr Douglas met with other members of Salisbury Area Board to consider funding requests from the community.
One proposal from Salisbury Pride UK sought a £2,000 grant for a Salisbury Pride March in 2020. The proposal said the grant was needed to:
“Raise the LGBTQ profile seeking better understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ community and ensuring that Salisbury is a safe and fully inclusive city for all.”
At the board meeting, Cllr Douglas refused to support the proposal due to its political nature and made the following statement:
“I cannot support this. Not because I do not accept or respect or love people who identify as LGBTQ but because I do. I do not reject people who so identify, and I support completely their right to make choices and to live as they see fit. However, I do not support those choices themselves, nor the ideology they represent. These are beautiful people, well-meaning and sincere, but misguided by a powerful ideology – google Gay Liberation Front Manifesto mid 20thC – which I do not want to be part of promoting. This is not just my view – it represents that of many people who are afraid to say so, ‘the silent majority.’
“In fact, even if I agree with the ideology, should local government be funding a march to raise the profile and promote the worldview of any one part of our community? In a diverse society, we need to tolerate different viewpoints and lifestyle, but we do not need to affirm them. Indeed, the very word ‘tolerate’ indicates that we disagree or potentially disapprove of that which we are asked to tolerate. We absolutely should permit marches promoting an ideology, religion or worldview but we do not need to and, indeed, should not promote them.”
Immediately following the meeting, Cllr Douglas spoke to the member of Salisbury Pride who had submitted the application to re-assure her that she bore no ill will to her personally.
However, she was quickly accosted by future Salisbury Mayor and LGBT Advocate, Cllr Caroline Corbin, who told her she had been ‘hateful.’
A local media report followed including false allegations that Cllr Douglas had previously described transgender people as ‘mentally ill,’ which she had not.
Nonetheless, on the basis of this media report, two complaints followed claiming that she had breached the council’s Code of Conduct and a week after the board meeting she was informed by the Leader of the Council, Cllr Phillip Whitehead, that she would be removed from the portfolio role.
The complaints came from members of the public who were not personally in attendance at the Local Area Board meeting and declined to participate in the complaint proceedings themselves. Both complainants had learned about what happened at the meeting through the inaccurate local media report.
Cllr Whitehead said: “I have taken the decision to remove Councillor Mary Douglas as Portfolio Holder for Social Mobility and Skills. I would like to thank her for her work during her time as Portfolio Holder. She will step down from the role with immediate effect but remains a Wiltshire Council councillor.”
Ahead of the hearing, Cllr Douglas described how the abrupt decision left her shocked, and feeling ‘very bruised,’ condemned and vulnerable.
Other councillors have told her that while they do not necessarily support her views, they believe she had been badly and unfairly treated.
‘It should never have come to this’
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “While we are happy that Cllr Douglas has been vindicated, it never should have come to this. There is a chilling effect on political debate when an elected official acting in good faith and on behalf of her constituency can be subjected to code of conduct hearings because of nebulous and ill-defined equality considerations.
“It is my hope that the Wiltshire Council will put democracy first in the future, and try better to understand that Cllr Douglas and her constituents alike can hold dissenting views to using public funds to support a Pride event without acting with discriminatory intent.
“When Cllr Douglas was elected people knew exactly who they were voting for. She made no secret of her Christian faith. She is a very popular member of the local community, who has served it well for many years.
“We call on public bodies across the UK to understand and respect officials and elected members’ right to freedom of speech and expression, so that nobody else has to go through what Cllr Douglas has.”
Find out more about Mary Douglas