An Employment Tribunal has ruled in favour of a Christian pastor and school caretaker who was punished for a tweet that said LGBTQ pride events are harmful and should not be attended by Christians and children.
Employment Judge King ruled that Pastor Keith Waters, 55, who has been supported by the Christian Legal Centre, had been discriminated against when he was hounded out of his part-time caretaker role at the Isle of Ely primary school in 2019 following a social media maelstrom, which included a death threat.
In an important ruling, the employment tribunal found in favour of Pastor Waters’ freedom to express his biblical beliefs on human identity and sexual morality on social media.
Furthermore, the ruling finds that Christian pastors that have employment alongside their church ministries are free to express their biblical faith online without fear of losing other jobs.
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Before a full Employment Tribunal in Cambridge in January 2022, Pastor Waters’ lawyer, Michael Phillips, had argued that the Isle of Ely primary school had interfered with Pastor Waters’ rights to freedom of religion, thought and expression and that the tweet that led to his forced resignation was a manifestation of his Christian beliefs.
Freedom of Speech
Handing down judgment on the case this week, Employment Judge King ruled that Pastor Waters had been discriminated against by the school, saying: ‘The fact that the claimant made the tweet outside of work on his personal account as part of his role as a Christian Minister is highly relevant. It is one thing to have rules that apply during work and something else to extend those to one’s private life outside of work.’
Judge King added that: ‘To curtail the claimant’s freedom of speech outside of work which is an important part of his role as a Christian minister and thus part of freedom to practice his religion must be done with some exercise of caution and only in the clearest cases where the rights of others are being damaged should the School intervene to prevent the claimant from preaching.
‘It is clear to us that evangelical Christian ministers will have views not necessarily shared by everyone in Society but that is part of their duty as a Christian minister to preach those beliefs.’
On whether it was lawful for the school to give Pastor Waters a final written warning, forcing him to choose between his caretaker role and freedom to ability to express the Christian faith on social media, Judge King ruled:
‘It was not proportionate to act in the way the [school] did given that the views expressed were done so as part of the claimant’s religious beliefs outside of work. The claimant relies on the risk of getting a disciplinary sanction as being the act of indirect discrimination. We accept that it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim for the claimant to be investigated and called to a disciplinary meeting to explore further the relationship between the tweet and his roles but we do not accept that giving the claimant a final written warning for his tweet in this context was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aims. Giving the claimant a final written warning did not protect the School or the Trust as it would have been confidential and not in the public domain so as far as parents were concerned the claimant would have still been employed had he not resigned.
The judge ruled that giving a final warning, unlike a public statement, would not even reduce the alleged offence caused by the tweet, and said: ‘The giving of a final written warning cannot eliminate the offence caused to others .’
Christian beliefs protected and ‘worthy of respect’
Judge King made further important points on whether Pastor Waters’ Christian beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010. For example, on his beliefs are ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’ as outlined as part of the seminal Grainger PLC v Nicholson (2010) criteria of what qualifies as a ‘philosophical belief’ to be protected under the Equality Act, Judge King said:
‘We discussed the claimant’s beliefs and we were satisfied that the claimant genuinely held these beliefs and that they formed a considerable part of how he lived his life as a Christian minister for his Church. To the claimant they were cogent, serious and of the upmost importance.’
‘We spent more time considering the last of the Grainger requirements and whether all of the claimant’s beliefs are worthy of respect in a democratic society and in particular his views on sexual relationships being only within heterosexual marriage as these may be said to conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
‘However, it is clear that the same could be said about some other aspects of Christianity which could conflict with other religions. This does not mean that they are not capable of being respected. Whilst a majority may not share those views, the claimant is entitled to hold them. This is of course different to how those beliefs manifest themselves and to the specific issues in this case.’
Furthermore, she said: ‘Beliefs which are offensive, shocking or even disturbing to others can still be protected.’
Relieved and delighted
Responding to the outcome Pastor Waters said:
“I am relieved and pleased with the outcome. This is a victory, not just for me, but for Christian evangelical leaders across the country.
“I pray that this ruling will help protect Pastors in the future that have to work part time in other jobs to make up their income. This is an important win for our freedom to speak the truth of the gospel without fear of losing our jobs.
“I took legal action, not because I wanted to sue the school, but because what happens to me goes to the heart of what it means to be free to preach the gospel in the UK. I believed the issues my case raised were much bigger than anything that was happening to me and that it was the right thing to do.
“Despite knowing this was the right thing to do, this whole episode has left me in some emotional turmoil and has taken a lasting toll on me and my family. In 37 years of employment, I have never been treated in such a heartless and hostile way. The freedom to resign from your job or be silenced from speaking as a Christian pastor is no freedom at all.
“I still stand by what I said, and I’ll always stand up for the truth. I believe that children’s safety is paramount, and that everyone, but especially Christian pastors, must be able to voice concerns and ‘raise red flags’ where children may be at risk”.
“Anyone who attends a ‘Pride’ event risks being exposed to obscenities. That is self-evidently harmful for children and in a free, responsible and truly loving society we must be free to say that and raise concern without fear.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “We are happy that Keith has finally received justice in this crucial case for Christian freedom.
“For loving Jesus, speaking biblical truth, and caring for the welfare of children, Keith became persona non grata – his words and intentions distorted, his character assassinated.
“Our schools and churches need more community-minded people like him, not less. For sending one tweet, that raised genuine concern for children, he was vilified, threatened and hounded out of his employment.
“Despite an abundance of psychological studies concluding that children exposed to sexually explicit content at an early age are more likely to develop disorders and addictions, there are many articles online that encourage parents to bring their children to Pride parades.
“Why should a Christian pastor not be able to speak out on such concerning issues without being threatened and losing his job?
“What happened to Keith Waters is the latest in a long line of cases where honest, kind, normal people are subjected to harassment and intimidation for expressing moderate, mainstream Christian views on sexual ethics.”
In 2016, Pastor Waters took a 60% pay cut from his role as an Estates Manager at one of Cambridge University’s largest colleges, to work part time as a caretaker at the Isle of Ely Primary School so he could pastor his local Evangelical Church, Ely New Connexions Church.
The job was taken with the agreement that he if there was a conflict with his job as a Pastor, his pastoral job would take priority.
From the outset, he said that he would “be unequivocal in publicly stating the Christian doctrine on various issues, some of which may be unpopular.”
On 1 June 2019, at the beginning of LGBTQ pride month, Pastor Waters tweeted:
“A reminder that Christians should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Christian faith and morals. They are especially harmful to children,” he wrote.
Pastor Waters says his intention was to address and warn Christians about LGBTQ pride events across the UK as they often involve nudity, people in sadomasochistic outfits and displays of an overtly sexual nature.
He believes LGBTQ pride events are diametrically opposed to Christian beliefs on sexual ethics and therefore are harmful, especially for young children who often attend or are encouraged to attend.
Yet the consequences of this solitary tweet for Pastor Waters were terrifying, as he and his family faced a string of coordinated threats aimed at forcing him out of his job and, eventually, the town.
Within minutes of sending the post, he received a tweet from a local journalist, John Elworthy, accusing him of attacking the local LGBTQ community in Ely ahead of pride events that month.
The following morning, as Pastor Waters was preparing for a Sunday service at his church, a hostile Cambridge-based journalist tried to force him into apologising for the tweet, which he refused to do.
By Monday, he was on the front page of the Cambridge Evening News and online abuse continued to grow with local councillors and pressure groups creating a toxic atmosphere against Pastor Waters.
During this period, his wife answered the door to funeral directors who had been sent to arrange his ‘funeral’; likewise, estate agents contacted him having been told he was moving from the area ‘in a hurry’.
Pastor Waters was also nearly knocked off his bike by an angry local resident in a car who wanted to remonstrate with him.
Furthermore, false rumours were spread that he was a child molester and there were calls from local councillors for him to be investigated by police for a ‘hate incident.’
Fearing for his, his family’s, and his church members’ safety, Pastor Waters decided to delete the tweet.
At this time, his caretaker role at the local primary school came under threat as the headteacher informed him that he was being investigated for bringing the school ‘into disrepute’ after receiving a handful of complaints as part of the campaign against him.
One letter to the school claimed that Pastor Waters’ tweet called for ‘violence against people who support the Ely Pride Festival’.
An anonymous teacher also claimed that his tweet fell ‘within the British government’s definition of extremism’ and that action must be taken against him.
Pastor Waters was then invited to an investigation meeting, which he was told was strictly confidential and must not be discussed with anyone other than his family members.
However, despite the confidentiality direction he had been placed under, members of the wider school community found out about the investigation before Pastor Waters was made aware of it.
The letter also stated inaccurately that the allegations against him related to ‘recent reports of comments you have made in the public domain concerning the status and sexual identity of members of the local community.’
‘An asset to the school’
Until this point, Pastor Waters was a liked and respected member of staff, and at his final appraisal he was described as ‘an asset to the school’.
Going above and beyond in his role as caretaker, he used his expertise to put in place fire safety policies, and organised gardening lessons for troubled pupils who were physically threatening teachers.
Following the complaints, however, Pastor Waters, was shunned and avoided by senior management and prevented from carrying out some of his regular duties.
After the investigation, Pastor Waters was told that his tweet was ‘highly inappropriate and offensive’, and that he had brought the school into disrepute and broken the code of conduct and he was issued with a final written warning.
Pastor Waters believed he faced no alternative but to resign as he could no longer combine his roles as a Christian pastor and caretaker at the school.
The Tribunal found that Pastor Waters has been discriminated against. The amount of compensation that he receives will be determined at a later hearing.
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