A Christian, Felix Ngole, has won a court action against Sheffield University which threw him off his social worker course because he had posted, on social media, the Church’s position on gay marriage. The dubious reasoning behind this draconian measure had been that he would not, as a social worker, be able to relate to gay people and handle their cases sympathetically.
That is, of course, patent nonsense.
The Church also teaches that any sex outside marriage is wrong. Does that mean that a Christian social worker would not be able to assist a single, pregnant woman? Would such a consideration even enter the minds of university course supervisors?
The Church teaches that divorce is wrong. So we must presume from the university’s reasoning that a practising Catholic social worker would not be able to handle cases of familial separation.
I could go on but the question this sad case really prompts is: why is it always Christians who are on the receiving end of this nasty prejudice? If a Muslim had been ejected from a course for such a reason the cry would rightly have gone up that this was religious discrimination; but no such consideration seems to apply to Christians.
Years ago, while I was still in Parliament, there was an attempt to introduce the notion of Christianophobia. I have as much time for “-phobias” as I have for “-isms” in their modern context. But if we can have Islamophobia then why indeed not Christianophobia? Why are Christians deemed unworthy of protection under discrimination laws?
Even when we win the court actions (think Adrian Smith, Ashers Bakery, Nadia Eweida) nobody seems to take note: there is always another anti-Christian action on the part of officialdom lurking round the corner. The assumption seems to be that Christians must sign up to state orthodoxy but the discordant views of others will be quietly ignored.
Perhaps a bigger question still is that Felix Ngole’s case raises the issue of the boundaries between public and private (as did the case of Adrian Smith, who was demoted after criticising gay marriage on Facebook). Do we no longer respect the line between the two? Nay, do we even know in this age of social media where that line is?
Once it was simple. People debated such matters in pubs and clubs. No matter how lively the engagement, the audience was limited. Joe Bloggs might mutter to his friends about the views of Bill Soap but he did not do so to an audience of thousands. Now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the like, a dispute can “go viral” and moderately expressed views become “storms”.
In the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Mao’s China there was no recognition of a private view. The most mildly dissident opinion, expressed to a friend over a drink and overheard by any passing fanatic, could lead to the loss of a job. The equivalent in today’s supposedly free Britain is a gentle demur on Facebook potentially leading to the ending of a career.
If Mr Ngole had mentioned to a group of fellow students over a bite in the canteen that he followed Church teaching on marriage then it is unlikely there would have been any retribution, even if one of the students had complained. He would probably have been summoned by his tutor and told gently that it might be more diplomatic not to express such views, which is an offence against free speech but not job-threatening. In short, a private view would have been treated as just that.
The arrival and explosive growth of social media, however, has changed the distinction between private and public. Adrian Smith, after all, had used his personal Facebook page, not the one belonging to Trafford Housing Association for which he worked. Probably now we have to regard putting something, anything, on social media as the equivalent of broadcasting on prime-time television; and are even private conversations safe when they can be repeated by others, with varying degrees of accuracy, on those same sites?
The logical conclusion of the current trajectory must be that there will come a time when nobody dares venture a view that defies prevalent opinion, and when that time does arrive, we might as well be living in the old Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, those who try to suppress dissident views in modern Britain might like to ask themselves what would have happened if no one had been brave enough to defy past orthodoxy: Mrs Pankhurst or Wilberforce to name but two? They won’t see it that way, of course, because they are too convinced of their own moral superiority.
Anyway, back to Felix Ngole. I hope he has a successful career and that his example, rather than just his court victory, will serve to convince Sheffield University that devout Christians really can be social workers.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and Brexit Party MEP
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