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England's version of Israel Folau wins his case

Ground-breaking victory for free speech in Court of Appeal

He comes from a ethnic minority, He was expelled from uni for a social media post quoting the Bible on the same subject as Folau. He is not rich or famous. But he has just won a precedent-setting victory.

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(The Court of Appeal judgment can be read here It is highlights a finding that the two sides in the dispute had become rapidly polarised. In the light of the Folau case it is interesting to read about the attempts by Pastor Ade Omooba to find a path of compromise. This story comes from supporters of Ngole. The judgment gives a fuller account – UPDATE I have added a key passage in the judgement where it becomes clear the University was seeking to ban Ngole from ANY public statement of his beliefs on sexuality at the end of the article. John Sandeman)

In a landmark judgment, the UK Court of Appeal has upheld the rights of British Christians to freely express their faith by handing victory to former student social worker Felix Ngole.

Overturning a High Court decision to uphold Felix’s expulsion from Sheffield University, the crucial outcome represents a major development of the law. It is now clear that Christians have the legal right to express biblical views on social media and elsewhere in public without fear for their professional careers.

This is the first Court of Appeal judgment regarding freedom of expression of biblical views which sets limits on the rights of professional regulators to restrict free speech on social media. The ruling is an authoritative statement of the law, likely to be relied upon in hundred of current and future cases.

Expelled for quoting the Bible

Felix was expelled in 2016 from his social work course at the University of Sheffield after quoting Bible verses on Facebook that were deemed critical of homosexuality.

In 2015, he had entered into a discussion on Facebook over the imprisonment of Kim Davies, the Kentucky marriage registrar jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples. During a vigorous online political debate, many views were exchanged on the Christian faith. A devout Christian, Felix quoted Bible verses affirming the traditional Christian opposition to same-sex marriage and of the sinful nature of homosexual activity.

Some months later, Felix was reported anonymously to the University of Sheffield by a fellow student and was subsequently disciplined in a Fitness to Practise hearing. He was informed that he had brought the social work profession into disrepute and was then expelled from the course, losing the career he had worked so hard for.

‘Lacking insight’

In the court hearings, the university argued that Felix had ‘lacked insight’ into the effect of his posts on social media. During his Fitness to Practise hearing, the University had told him that the expression of his Christian views was unacceptable and was effectively told either to renounce his faith or stay silent on pain of losing his career. Yet Felix says he felt he could not surrender his faith.

In some shocking exchanges from the High Court hearing, the University of Sheffield implied that Felix was not allowed to express the Christian viewpoint on same-sex marriage or homosexuality on any public forum, including in a church.

However, the Court of Appeal held that it was the university that was ‘lacking insight’ in not understanding a Christian viewpoint.

In addition, the Court of Appeal lavished praise on Christian Concern co-founder Pastor Ade Omooba MBE for urging that the university seek caution and compromise.

 

Sharing faith is not discriminatory

The Court of Appeal condemned the position of the university whereby people would live in fear if private expressions of views were overheard and could be reported anonymously.

The court ruled that: “The mere expression of views on theological grounds (e.g. that ‘homosexuality is a sin’) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views will discriminate on such grounds.” It was further recognised that Felix had never been shown to act in a discriminatory fashion.

The outcome of this case will have significant implications not only for Christian freedom of speech, but in relation to all free speech. For example, comments made by people on social media (often many years ago) have recently been arbitrarily used to silence viewpoints that people dislike or disagree with.

‘My personal loss is gain for future Christians’

Commenting on his win, Felix said: “This is great news, not only for me and my family, but for everyone who cares about freedom of speech, especially for those working in or studying for caring professions. As Christians we are called to care for and serve others, and publicly and privately we must be free to express our beliefs, especially when asked, without fear of losing our livelihoods.

“”I have suffered tremendously as a result of how I was treated by the University of Sheffield and I feel that four years of my life have been taken away from me. Despite all this, I feel overwhelming joy that what I have lost will be so much gain to Christians today and in the future as a result of this important ruling for freedom.”

A message of freedom

Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which supported Felix, said: “This is a watershed case for Christians and a resounding victory for freedom of speech.

“We are delighted that the Court of Appeal has seen the importance of this case and made a ruling that accords with common sense. It is shocking that the university sought to censor expression of the Bible in this way, and we hope this sends out a message of freedom across all universities and professions that Christians and others should be allowed to express their views without fear of censorship or discipline.

“Due to Felix’s sacrifice, Christians and others now know that it is their legal right to express biblical views on social media or elsewhere without fear for their professional careers. This is a major development of the law and must be upheld and respected in current and future Christian freedom cases.

“Despite this victory, this is not the end of Felix’s fight for justice. He must now go back to a University of Sheffield panel, who will judge, in light of this outcome, his fitness to practise as a social worker. Full justice must be served and the University held to account so that this kind and compassionate man can finally work in a job that reflects his qualifications and his ability, professionally and as a person. Our communities and the most vulnerable in our society need more Christian professionals like Felix, not less.”

A key passage from the judgment

(The numbers are paragraph numbers which will help readers of the full judgment locate this passage)

123. Ms Hannett represented the University with real ability and great clarity. In the course of her exchanges with the Court during argumen t before us , the University’s position was tested fully. In an important exchange , Ms Hannett helpfully clarified the University’s position as regards what we consider to be a fundamental point: s he made it clear that any expression of disapproval of same – sex relations – however mildly expressed – which could be traced back to the person making it, would be a breach of the professional guidelines for social workers as far as the University was concerned . This point does n ot appear to have been articulated in these precise terms before the judge below, and there appears to us to be considerable tension with what had previously been expressed to be the University’s concern.
124. Ms Hannett’s clarification is helpful because it confirms what is apparent from the records of the disciplinary proceedings : namely, th at the University told the Claimant that whilst he was entitled to hold his views about homosexuality being a sin, he was never entitled to express such views on social m edia or in any public forum.
125. As the argument developed before us , it became clear how wide Ms Hannett’s submission must be taken. A side from expressi ng views on – line or in social media, or such old – fashioned modes of expression such as writing in a loca l newspaper or speaking or preaching on a street corner: even expressing these views in a church, at least in a community small enough for these views to be known and associated with the speaker, would, it is said, be sufficient to cross the line.
126. The bre adth of the proposition became clear in another way, conveniently referenced from the ambit of the HCPC regulations in question here. If social workers and social work students must not express such views, then what of art therapists, occupational therapi sts, paramedics, psychologists, radiographers, speech and language therapists: all professions whose students and practitioners work under the rubric of the same general regulations? What of teachers and student teachers, not covered by the HCPC regulati ons, but by a similar regulatory regime? For present purposes it is not easy to see a rational distinction between these groups. All are usually engaged with service users who often have no opportunity to select the individual professional concerned. Ve ry many of these professions deal on a day – to – day basis with personal problems of a particular nature, where the social, family and sexual relationships of the client or service user are relevant, sometimes central.
127. In our view t he implication of the University’s submission is that such religious views as these, held by Christians in professional occupations, who hold to the literal truth of the Bible, can never be expressed in circumstances where they might be traced back to the professional concerned. In practice, this would seem to mean expressed other than in the privacy of the home. And if that proposition holds true for Christians with traditional beliefs about the literal truth of the Bible, it must arise also in respect o f many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and members of other faiths with similar teachings. In practice, if such were a proper interpretation of professional regulation supported by law, no such believing Christian would be secure in such a profession, unless t hey resolved never to express their views on this issue other than in private. Even then, what if a private expression of views was overheard and reported? The postings in question here were found following a positive internet search by the anonymous com plainant. What if such statements had been revealed by a person who had attended a church service or Bible class?
128. It will immediately be clear that an absolut e prohibition of the expression of such religious views is some way distant from the rather ele vated d ebate about the use of religious language – and the Appellant’s obligations to grasp and act on the potential misunderstanding of religious language and how and when to deploy it – which held the stage below. The more nuanced way in which the Unive rsity’s case was put below is likely to have coloured the Judge’s findings and conclusions . However, the blanket prohibition espoused by the University from the outset of the disciplinary hearings is clear from a detailed and careful analysis of the recor ds of the hearings such as we have carried out above.

 

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