A group committed to upholding the right to freedom of speech has threated a university with legal action after it “cancelled” a Catholic chaplain because of the views he expressed about abortion and assisted suicide.
The Free Speech Union (FSU) said it will take the University of Nottingham to court unless it reversed its decision not to recognise Fr David Palmer as Catholic chaplain.
The university declined to confirm the post of Fr Palmer, 51, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, after he remarked on Twitter that abortion was the “slaughter of babies” and assisted suicide was “killing the vulnerable”.
Instead, it will allow him to visit once on a Sunday to celebrate Mass as a “guest priest” for staff and students, a move which effectively leaves the university and its large medical school without a Catholic priest chaplain on campus.
Toby Young, a journalist and the general secretary of the FSU, said in a letter to Prof Shearer West, the university vice chancellor, that the move breached the Equality Act 2010 that prohibits public institutions from discriminating against anyone on the basis of their religious or philosophical beliefs.
“The fact that Fr David’s appointment has been obstructed in this way, but not the appointment of the university’s Jewish chaplain, three Muslim chaplains or the eight other Christians chaplains, suggests he is a victim of unlawful discrimination,” wrote Mr Young.
“In addition, we are concerned that by refusing to recognise Fr David’s appointment because of his Catholic beliefs you are creating a hostile environment for Catholic students and staff at the university and not fulfilling your duty to foster good relations between the Catholic members of your community and other groups with protected characteristics,” he wrote. “This is also in breach of the Equality Act.”
“The discrimination against Fr David in this way – and by extension other Catholics at your university – is particularly alarming in light of the persecution that Catholics have suffered in Britain down the centuries,” he continued.
“Can I therefore ask for your assurances that Fr David’s appointment will be recognised by the university and he will be accorded all the same privileges as your 12 other chaplains?
“If you don’t provide this assurance we will support Fr David’s efforts to remedy this injustice up to an including taking the university to court.”
A spokesman for the University of Nottingham declined to discuss the prospect of legal action, saing only that “the university has received the letter and will reply in due course”.
Previously a spokesman has said, however, that the concern of the university was not about Fr Palmer’s “views themselves, or the tenets of the Catholic faith which we fully respect, but the manner in which these views have been expressed in the context of our diverse community of people of many faiths”.
Fr Palmer said that he turned to the FSU for advice because he believed his treatment by the university “has wider implications than just my situation”
He said: “If not challenged it sets a dangerous precedent whereby a secular institution believes it has the authority to define which parts of Catholic teaching are ‘acceptable’ for Catholics to express openly. If this isn’t robustly challenged where will it end?
“The FSU’s advice is that they believe the university has acted unlawfully under the Equality Act of 2010. Hence their letter.”
The priest has the support of Bishop Patrick McKinney of Nottingham who has refused to rescind his appointment in spite of pressure from the university to appoint another priest as chaplain instead.
The so-called cancellation of Fr Palmer has been also widely criticised by non-Catholics, including Ann Furedi, until recently the chief executive officer of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the largest private abortion provider in the UK.
She declared in a tweet: “So stupid to cancel this guy … he’s a Catholic priest – let Catholic students decide individually if they want his counsel.”
Miss Furedi also retweeted a post by Timandra Harkness, in which the scientific writer, comedian and broadcaster said: “This is terrible.
“I disagree with his views on abortion but as a Catholic priest he’s expressing a mainstream Catholic view. Universities can’t tell chaplains what religious beliefs to express.”
The University of Nottingham was founded in 1881 and was granted a royal charter in 1948.
In November 2020, it reached a settlement with Catholic undergraduate midwifery student Julia Rynkiewicz, who received an apology and compensation after she was barred from a hospital placement phase when the university learned of her leadership of a pro-life student group.
Fr Palmer was also asked Bishop McKinney to serve as Catholic chaplain to Nottingham Trent University, which has accepted his appointment.
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