The Employment Appeal Tribunal in London has upheld a judge’s decision to reject expert evidence from a well-known theatre critic and Christian theologian in the case of sacked Christian actress, Seyi Omooba.
Seyi, an up and coming West End star, was removed from the lead role in the musical The Color Purple in March 2019 for a four-year-old Facebook post that cited what the Bible says about marriage and homosexuality. The Leicester Curve Theatre argued that the Facebook post was “deeply offensive to the LGBTQ community”, so that the production could not go ahead with Seyi in the lead role of Celie.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Seyi is suing the theatre and Global Artists Agency, which refused to represent her following the controversy, on the grounds of religious discrimination and breach of contract.
Support from independent experts
Seyi had secured support of an eminent theatre critic, Lloyd Evans, and a renowned theologian, Dr Martin Parsons, who both provided expert reports supporting her claim.
However, in a written decision from June 2020, Employment Judge Elliott ordered both expert reports to be excluded from the case as inadmissible evidence. Judge Elliot also refused to allow the full hearing, scheduled for February 2021, to be broadcast on Skype for Business despite hundreds of cases being heard on the platform during the current pandemic.
Last week, at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, Seyi appealed each of these decisions. However, handing down judgment today (25 November), Mr Justice Griffiths rejected each appeal, ruling that it was down to a judge’s “broad discretion” whether expert evidence is permitted or not.
In the expert report submitted by theatre critic Lloyd Evans, he stated: “It is not of any importance for an actor to agree with the ethical views or the feelings of a character in a play. Were that necessary, the art of drama would not exist, and many of the plays we regard as classics would be impossible to stage.”
Christian theologian, Dr Parsons, concluded his report stating that Seyi’s Facebook post constitutes “a fair and reasonable expression of Christian beliefs, as those beliefs have historically been held by the overwhelming majority of the Christian church throughout history.”
‘Doors have been intentionally closed to me’
Responding to the hearing today, Seyi commented: “Since I lost the role as Celie and was fired by my agency I have not been employed. All doors have been intentionally closed to me and people who used to give me the time of day now ignore me. My career was more than a job to me, it was something that I loved.
“When I heard that the expert evidence was being rejected, I didn’t understand how a judge would not want experts in their field to help decide a case if you wanted it to be fair. It was upsetting, as is this ruling, but we are determined keep fighting for justice.”
Can Christians voice their opinions in public?
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “Two experts in their field have now been silenced in this crucial case for Christian freedom. Are we really saying that Christians should not be actors or be able to voice their opinions and beliefs in public?”
“It is astonishing that we have had to provide proof on what the Bible says about marriage being between a man and a woman. Not so long ago this would have been self-evident.
“Many earlier cases of this kind have been rejected by courts on the grounds that we provided no expert evidence to prove that. However, when we do provide expert evidence, the courts refuse to consider it. One cannot help the impression that the courts treat Christian cases as too sensitive to afford a fair trial, for the fear of ending up with a politically incorrect result.
“This case raises deep cultural issues on whether Christians have the freedom to hold and express Biblical mainstream views in public without fear of losing their careers and we will continue to seek justice at the full hearing in February.”
Hounded out of her career
On 14 March 2019, Seyi Omooba, 25, from East London, had been given a lead role as Celie in Leicester Curve and Birmingham Hippodrome’s co-production of the award-winning musical The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s classic American novel.
The casting was announced the same day that Seyi went with her father, Pastor Ade Omooba, an eminent international Christian campaigner and Christian Concern’s co-founder, to Buckingham Palace to receive his MBE.
Seyi had developed her raw talent from a young age singing gospel in church and studying performing arts at Anglia Ruskin University. She had already built up a portfolio of performances, among them parts in Hadestown at the National Theatre, Little Shop of Horrors, Spring Awakening, and had played the role of Nettie in the Cadogan Hall production of The Color Purple.
In a review of her full debut in the West End musical, Ragtime, Miss Omooba was described as: “jaw-droppingly good, and her ferocious gospel vocals…pin you to your seat. This is her professional debut, and she’s someone to watch.” In the production of A Color Purple at Cadogan Hall, Seyi’s depiction of the character of Nettie was described as capturing the “very heart of her character.”
Facebook post from 2014
After the cast was announced, however, on 15 March, Seyi was tagged on Twitter by another West End performer, Aaron Lee Lambert , who is not known to her. With a screenshot of a Facebook post that Miss Omooba had posted four-and-half-years ago on 18 September 2014, Mr Lambert wrote:
“@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.”
In September 2014, Seyi was a 20-year-old student whose acting career had not even started. She regularly posts about her faith online without any issue, and in this post had written on her personal Facebook page, in the context of the government introducing same-sex marriage legislation, that:
“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 homosexual practice 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 received the tweet from Mr Lambert while supporting a grieving friend, and despite being deeply shocked and intimidated, refused to be drawn into an online discussion on the issue.
Called a nigger for citing the Bible
Calls for Seyi to be removed from the cast followed, as well as online abuse which included her being called a ‘nigger.’
Seyi, who visibly prays before each show and wears a ‘Not Ashamed’ of the Gospel wrist band, had accepted the lead role over Celie after originally auditioning for the character of Nettie, and disagrees with the interpretation that Celie is a lesbian character.
The character of Celie in The Color Purple has intrigued readers and critics since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 after its publication the previous year. Set in the Deep South of the US, it’s main character, Celie, leads a life of immense struggle at the hands of men, until she briefly finds comfort and friendship with another woman. It was made into a Hollywood film in 1985 and starred Whoopi Goldberg, who described the film and the character of Celie as:
“Not really about feminism, or lesbianism, despite the fact that Celie finds out about love and tenderness from another woman … It has nothing to do with lesbianism. It has to do with, her eyes are opened, now she understands.”
Steven Spielberg, who directed the film, was pressed in 2011 on whether today he would make the ‘kiss’ scene in the film more explicit, but he said: “I wouldn’t, no. That kiss is consistent with the tonality, from beginning to end, of The Color Purple that I adapted.”
On 15 March, Miss Omooba received a call from her agency, Global Artists, telling her that pressure was mounting for her to be removed from the show because of her views. She was told that only through retracting the comments and publicly apologising would she be able to continue under their management, which she refused to do.
Leicester Curve Theatre and the Birmingham Hippodrome then released a statement on 21 March which led to Miss Omooba’s contract being terminated. The theatres claimed in their statement that: “The play and production are seeking to promote freedom and independence and to challenge views, including the view that homosexuality is a sin.”
Find out more about Seyi Omooba