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Suspended after ‘friendly chat’

16 April 2009

by Bill Bowder

A HOMELESSNESS charity has suspended a worker for discussing religion. David Booker, aged 44, who works for the Society of St James charity in Southampton, was suspended by the Society after what he said was a “friendly discussion” on same-sex marriages.

“I was working nights with a colleague of mine, and somehow we got on to the subject of Christianity,” Mr Booker told The Sunday Telegraph. “The conversation moved on to my views on homosexuality.

“I am not a bigot. I am not homophobic. I have gay friends. But I did say that I didn’t agree with same-sex marriages, I didn’t believe pastors or vicars should marry same-sex partners, and I don’t agree with practising homosexuals being a pastor or a vicar.”

What happened next is recounted by the Christian Legal Centre, from which Mr Booker has sought advice.

“The following day he was summoned by his employers and told that he was suspended for ‘events that happened last night’. On 30 March, he was given a suspen­sion notice alleging that: ‘On 26 March 09, whilst on shift with Fiona Vardy, you seri­ous­ly breached ECHG’s (English Churches Hous­ing Group’s) code of conduct by promot­ing your religious views, which con­tained discriminatory comments regarding a person’s sexual orientation.’

On Wednesday this week, the CEO of the Society of St James, Trevor Pickup said: “We are conducting an investigation, and that is as far as we have got. We are hoping to meet Mr Booker at the end of the week.”

The Society has 170 staff, looking after 3000 people living in hostels and housing projects, and is working with 100 drug-users in Southampton. “It was founded 35 years ago in an old church hall, but it is not a religious organisation,” Mr Pickup said. It had an annual turnover of £5.5 million, but received no more than two per cent of its income from churches. “The Christian Legal Centre has said that we are largely funded by the churches in Hampshire, but that is not true.

“ECHG put a building in Southampton out to tender, and our tender won. Over a year ago, we took over the building and the staff, and it is now run by us. ECHG have no role in this, and the Archbishop [of Canterbury] is their patron, not ours.”

In a formal statement, the Society challenged Mr Booker’s account that he had been expressing moderate opinions. “The Society would like to make it clear that it only suspends people when allegations against them are very serious. We cannot say more at this point because we have a duty to ensure that Mr Booker is treated fairly.”

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