IN A strongly worded judgment, three judges of the Court of Appeal unanimously reversed a Deputy High Court judge’s refusal to interfere with a decision of the University of Sheffield. The university had removed a Christian student from a two-year MA course in social work because he had expressed, on a public social-media platform, his disapproval of homosexual acts based on his religious views.
In September 2014, the student, Felix Ngole, enrolled as a mature student on the course which, if completed successfully, would lead to registration and practice as a qualified social worker. He had completed one practice placement, which brought him into direct contact with service users, and was due to undertake his second placement in the second year of the course.
In September 2015, Mr Ngole posted a series of comments on his Facebook account about a prominent news story on a website in the United States regarding the imprisonment of a registrar in the United States, Kim Davis, for contempt of the order of a Federal District Court. The sentence was a result of Ms Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples because of her Christian beliefs.
Mr Ngole contributed about 20 posts to the US website in response to postings by others. His comments included statements that same-sex marriage was “a sin whether we accept it or not”, and that homosexuality was “a sin no matter how you want to dress it up”, and was “a wicked act and God hates the act”. He also included several biblical quotations, including Leviticus 18.22, Romans 1.26-28, and references to Sodom and Gomorrah, containing strong language such as “an abomination” and “a punishment of eternal fire”.
His posts were brought anonymously to the attention of the university by another student. The Department of Sociological Studies initiated an investigation. When interviewed by an investigator, Mr Ngole admitted making the posts, sought to explain their religious and theological meaning, and said that he never discriminated against anybody. His placement reports, he said, demonstrated that he was supportive and non-discriminatory when working with people in same-sex relationships. He said that, if he was asked his views, he would have to tell people his opinion, and the Bible said that homosexuality was a sin.
The investigator said: “I don’t think you would behave in a discriminatory way; however, you could inadvertently discriminate” against “the person at the receiving end of your comments”.
In January 2016, the Fitness to Practice Committee conducted a hearing, and, in February 2016, Mr Ngole was excluded from further study on the social-work programme (News, 11 March 2016). He appealed to the Appeals Committee of the University Senate, saying that it was he who had been discriminated against “because I am a Christian”.
He said that the complaint against him had been “made in bad faith by a person who is known to have hostility to Christian views; and the university are acting upon her discriminatory views . . . I have been removed from the course for expression of the orthodox Christian viewpoint on sexual ethics and the fact that homosexuality is a sin in the Bible”.
That, he said, was a direct violation of his rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. He said that his expression of free speech on a subject of public controversy was lawful, and could not result in a punishment, “otherwise there is no free speech except what the university approves of”. He then asked what the university’s position was “on whether a Muslim student who believes in sharia law [in relation to the status of women and attitudes to homosexuality] is fit to qualify in social work when the student expresses his/her views in moderate terms in a religious discussion on the internet”.
The Appeals Committee of the university senate upheld the decision to exclude Mr Ngole from further study on the social-work programme, and the Deputy High Court judge refused to interfere.
The Court of Appeal (“CA”) said that it was clear from the records of the disciplinary proceedings that the university told Mr Ngole that, while he was entitled to hold his views about homosexuality’s being a sin, he was never entitled to express such views on social media or in any public form.
The implication of the university’s argument, the CA said, was that such religious views held by Christians in professional occupations who held to the literal truth of the Bible could never be expressed in circumstances in which they might be traced back to the professional concerned. In practice, that would mean expressed other than in the privacy of the home.
And, if that proposition held true for Christians with traditional beliefs about the literal truth of the Bible, it must arise also in respect of many Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and members of other faiths with similar teachings.
In practice, the CA said, “if such were a proper interpretation of professional regulation supported by law, no such believing Christian would be secure in such a profession unless they resolved never to express their views . . . other than in private. Even then, what if a private expression of views was overheard and reported?”
The university had wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination, the CA said. The mere expression of views on theological grounds (for example, “homosexuality is a sin”) did not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views would discriminate on such grounds. There was positive evidence to suggest that Mr Ngole had never discriminated on such grounds, and was not likely to do so in future, because, as he explained, the Bible prohibited him from discriminating against anybody.
The Appeals Committee had found that Mr Ngole had failed to offer “any insight” on how his public postings might negatively affect the public’s view of the social-work profession. The CA said, however, that in its view it was the university’s stance which could be described as lacking “insight”.
Instead of exploring and imposing a lesser penalty, such as a warning, the university had imposed the extreme penalty of dismissing Mr Ngole from the course, and that, the CA said, was inappropriate in all the circumstances. The disciplinary proceedings were “flawed and unfair”, and there should be a new hearing before a differently constituted committee.
In this case, the second highest court in the land has recognised that the right to freedom of expression can apply equally in favour of Christians as adherents of other faiths. Religious texts may reflect attitudes to social issues which are no longer held by a majority, but the law does not prevent professional people from relying on those texts to express their own views in appropriate language — even publicly — provided that this does not itself involve discrimination against those with whom they deal in their professional capacity.