A CHRISTIAN employee of the East London NHS Foundation Trust who was disciplined because she prayed for a Muslim colleague, invited her to church, and gave her a book about a Muslim who had converted to Christianity, must wait to hear whether the Employment Appeal Tribunal agrees that the trust’s actions were a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The employee, Victoria Wasteney, is a 39-year-old senior occupational therapist. Last April, an employment tribunal ruled that the trust had acted reasonably in its treatment of Miss Wasteney when it suspended her on full pay for nine months while it investigated the complaints from her co-worker. She was issued with a written warning (News, 8 May 2015).
The trust’s disciplinary panel had found that she was guilty of three charges of misconduct, related to the “bullying and harassment” of her Muslim colleague. Miss Wasteney says that the conversations about faith were mutual and consensual.
She took her case to the Employment Appeal Tribunal last Friday, arguing that the original tribunal’s ruling had not “properly applied the European Convention on Human Rights’ strong protection of freedom of religion and expression”.
Her barrister, Paul Diamond, told the appeal hearing that an investigation for harassment breached Miss Wasteney’s rights under the ECHR to manifest her religious beliefs in the workplace. He said that the case was about a friendship that had gone wrong, and was not about the way Miss Wasteney had carried out her duties at the John Howard Centre mental-health unit in east London, where she had worked as head of forensic therapy since 2007.
He said that both the NHS trust’s internal disciplinary panel and the employment tribunal had reached their decision without hearing evidence from the Muslim complainant.
“Victoria’s case raises crucial questions about how the European Convention on Human Rights’ strong protection of religious freedom applies in the UK, and about the extent to which employers can censor freedom of expression,” Andrea Williams, the chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting Miss Wasteney, said.
“Victoria has been punished and left out in the cold for being honest and open about her faith, and this highlights an unhealthy trend.”
In a statement, Miss Wasteney said that “I conducted all my conversations with my colleague in a sensitive and appropriate way. I knew she was from a different faith background, and I was respectful of that. I didn’t force my beliefs on anyone at any point. Surely there should be room for mutual conversations about faith, where appropriate, in the workplace?”
She continued: “Evidence from text messages shows that we had a friendly relationship. I believe that the complaint has been handled in the way that it has because I am a Christian.”
Judgment in the case has been reserved, and will be handed down by Her Honour Judge Eady QC at a later date.