Felix Ngole was a devout Christian for whom, as the judges put it, “the Bible is the authoritative word of God”. He enrolled as a mature student on the MA social work course at Sheffield University, successful completion of which would have led to registration and practice as a qualified social worker.
On registration as a student he signed an agreement that he had read the Health and Care Professions Council’s (HCPC) student guidance on standards of conduct and ethics and would strive to conform to the HCPC’s expectations as set out there. In particular these stated that conduct outside work may, in very serious circumstances, “affect your ability to complete your programme; gain the final qualification; or register with us”.
At the start of his second year, Mr Ngole (pictured) posted a series of comments on his Facebook account about a prominent news story. It concerned the imprisonment of an American registrar for contempt of a court order resulting from her refusal to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples because of her Christian religious beliefs. Among other comments Mr Ngole said that “Same-sex marriage is a sin whether we accept it or not”; “Homosexuality is a sin, no matter how you want to dress it up”; “Homosexuality is a wicked act and God hates the act”; and “God hates sin and not man”.
There was an anonymous complaint to the university as a result of which there was a hearing, and Mr Ngole was removed from his course on fitness to practise grounds. It was this decision that he successfully challenged.
On reading the evidence it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the university mishandled the procedure from the outset. As the Court of Appeal said, it considered that “any expression of disapproval of same-sex relations (however mildly expressed) on a public social media or other platform which could be traced back to the person making it, was a breach of the professional guidelines”. Nor did it attempt to explore a middle ground, such as the possibility of a
warning being issued, with Mr Ngole remaining on the course.
The vital point, and one of great importance for the future, is that the Court of Appeal held that the university confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination.
It said: “The mere expression of views on theological grounds (eg that ‘homosexuality is a sin’) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views will discriminate on such grounds.”
Moreover, the court found that there was positive evidence to suggest that Mr Ngole had never discriminated on such grounds in the past and was not likely to do so in the future – because, as he explained, the Bible prohibited him from discriminating against anybody.
What is urgently needed is a reasoned debate involving not only Christians but society generally on when comments and opinions cross the line and become either criminal or at least worthy of the sanctions which the university sought to impose here.
On the one hand there is the view that anything “offensive” should be avoided, which would have landed a great many saints in deep trouble with the law in the past. The other view, which prevailed until recently, was that the line was only crossed when words spoken could result in others being incited to violent conduct. However, needs to be considered in the light of the law preventing unlawful discrimination. We need clarity.
On a more hopeful note, we may see a trend here. Readers will recall that in the Ashers Bakery case in 2018 the Supreme Court held that it was not discriminatory for bakers to refuse to bake a cake with a message supporting gay marriage. Gay rights activist Gareth Lee had asked Ashers, a bakery in Belfast run by Evangelical Christians, to bake a cake with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. The cake would have cost £36.50. According to the BBC, the Equality Commission spent more than £250,000 of public money on the case.
Contrast the fortunes of Mr Ngole with the treatment meted out to Lilian Ladele by the Court of Appeal in 2010, when as a civil registrar she refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies because of her religious beliefs. Her dismissal for this refusal was held to be fair, even though there were plenty of other registrars available to conduct such ceremonies.
Judges always say that they are there only to apply the law, which is strictly true. However, they do so against a background of trends in social thinking. Is there a feeling that in balancing the deeply held views of Christians against the rights of others – for example but not exclusively the gay community – the balance has tilted too far against Christians?
We will have to wait and see, but perhaps we are moving slowly to the law’s reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs which many of us have argued for.
Dr John Duddington is editor of Law and Justice, the Christian Law Review