Felix Ngole is a Christian who was thrown off a social work course at Sheffield University because he wrote on Facebook in 2015 that he supported the Kentucky registrar who had refused to handle gay marriages and provided a link to a biblical quotation.
He lost an appeal that his rights to freedom of speech and thought had been breached. University bosses told the court that the issue was his “fitness to practise”. That should worry us, for it implies that belief begets judgment and that Mr Ngole would be constrained in his dealings with gay people to the detriment of carrying out his duties.
It is the teaching of most Christian denominations in this country (and for that matter of other religions too, including Islam) that homosexual acts are sinful. Are the courts seriously ruling that anybody who follows those teachings are “unfit to practise” as social workers?
Neither the Bible nor the Church teaches that homosexuality is uniquely sinful for we are all sinners who violate God’s law many times a day. The teaching is simply that any sexual relationship, whether homosexual, heterosexual or anythingelseosexual (of which there is a large variety these days), which happens outside a marriage recognised as lawful by the Church is a sin. So would a Christian be “unfit to practise” if he or she were a caseworker to a single mother with four children by four different fathers?
If the answer to that question is yes, then there must be an awful lot of unfit case workers out there. The reason that Mr Ngole has fallen foul of the university is that there is a different standard applied to attitudes towards gay marriage than to other arrangements, whereby it is necessary to affirm its moral legitimacy. The assumption is that if one cannot do so then one cannot deal appropriately and professionally with those engaged in it.
That is nonsense and is a view based not only on a misunderstanding of sin but also on a complete failure to understand the Christian differentiation between the sinner and the sin or the biblical warnings against judging others and casting stones.
In 23 years as an MP, I helped plenty of people of whose lifestyles I disapproved, sometimes strongly so, because both my Christian and my parliamentary duty was to do exactly that. Quite apart from those considerations, I wanted to help them anyway just because they needed it. Why did the judge assume that Mr Ngole would do otherwise? Where was the evidence that he would enter a gay household bearing a cross and candle and dispersing holy water, while demanding its members repent?
Mr Ngole is just the latest victim of the insistence on affirming gay marriage. Most people will recall the case of Adrian Smith, the Trafford housing official who was demoted at work with a 40 per cent pay cut because he wrote in what a judge recognised as very moderate terms, on his private Facebook page, that he opposed the new law. For every case that hits the headlines there many others being played out behind the scenes.
We all know, for example, that Catholic adoption societies closed because the law demanded they place children with gay couples but what is less well-known is that potential foster carers and would-be adopters can be refused if they affirm only traditional marriage. It is a short-sighted policy for it cuts out many deeply caring couples who seek to take the hardest-to-place children.
I know one pair of practising Christians who adopted not one but two Down’s children and then fostered a troubled teenager. I suspect today they would have been refused.
So is Sheffield University saying that no practising Muslim can become a social worker? No orthodox Christian? That the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury would be unfit to practise among the deprived and needy? Have its course regulators ever stopped to tot up the hours put in voluntarily by nuns, priests and laity alike? And where is the evidence that any of these groups turned away gay people?
Plenty of atheist social workers will disapprove of the crimes, decisions or lifestyles of those they help but that does not render them unfit to practise. Fitness to be in that field of work depends on sound judgment and compassion, not on moral or religious views.
For Mr Ngole to have got as far as he did suggests there were no previous concerns, so why the sudden doubts when it is revealed that he thinks homosexual acts wrong? If he had not voiced his views would anybody have doubted his fitness to practise?
The choice for Christians seems stark: hide their light under a bushel or accept they will not be allowed to practise Christ’s command to care for others as social workers.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister
This article first appeared in the November 17 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here