Are people free to express their views on homosexuality at their workplace? That is one of the key questions to be answered in the era of legal bans on sexual discrimination and legal green lights for same-sex marriage. Employer, court and tribunal decisions seem to be trending negative.

We have discussed several American examples on this blog, but a case in the UK Employment Tribunal has to factor in European Union laws, rights and a recent declaration from the Council of Europe that acknowledges discrimination against Christians in the UK.

Nursery school worker Sarah Mbuyi was sacked 14 months ago after a friendly chat with a lesbian colleague took a turn for the worse. She happened to say “Praise God” when the other woman said she had recovered from an accident.

Ms A (my designation — she has name suppression) asked whether Mbuyi was a “born again” type of Christian. In the exchanges which followed, Ms A said that she couldn’t be part of a Christian faith that implied God hated her by refusing her and her partner a church wedding; she thought God would approve. Mbuyi assured her that God did not hate her but neither did he condone homosexual sex. Ms A got upset and went to her boss to complain. The Telegraph reports:

At a disciplinary meeting, her employers accused Miss Mbuyi of “harassing” her co-worker, saying such behaviour amounted to “gross misconduct” [a penalty normally reserved for theft and fighting at work] …

Her employers inquired how she would feel if she was asked to read children’s storybooks featuring same-sex parents. She replied that she would not be able to read such books.

Mbuyi was immediately dismissed, but is pursuing a case of unfair dismissal against New Park Childcare. At a tribunal hearing earlier this month witnesses and legal counsel for the employer said that Christian views on same-sex marriage should not be expressed in the workplace, and yet it seems Ms A herself wanted to discuss the subject.

You have to understand the backstory here. The Christian Legal Centre, which is representing Mbuyi, reports that she and the lesbian worker had become good friends over the months they had been working together “and they had frequent conversations about the meaning of Christianity.” At least some of these were initiated by her colleague. (When Ms A returned to work after her accident Mbuyi gave her a Bible, which she says was well received.) According to the CLC:

Miss Mbuyi explained: “When I said no God does not condone the practice of homosexuality, but does love you and says you should come to him as you are, she became emotional and went off to report me to my manager.

“I never ever condemned her, or accused her, but when she asked me directly what I believed, I was open about sharing the Bible’s teaching that homosexual sex (not the people) is wrong. It’s clear that this offended her and she was determined to get me sacked, simply because I expressed traditional Christian beliefs.”

Those beliefs, Newpark’s counsel told the tribunal this month, pulling a now familiar rabbit out of the gay rights hat, were comparable to racism. In any case they were “unlawfully discriminatory”. CLC reports:

In closing submissions to the Tribunal, Deshpal Panesar, Counsel for the employer, said: “The employer dismissed [Sarah] for expressing fundamentally discriminatory views about homosexuality, namely that it is a sin.

“[Sarah’s] views were not merely in terms of ‘my faith believes and other beliefs are valid’ but were expressed as absolute truths.

“Those views whilst they may be held in private, are fundamentally discriminatory against homosexuals and have no place in being expressed in the workplace, or in the manner of working, particularly in a nursery.

“To suggest that homosexuality should be repented is discriminatory. Whether harassment or not, unlawful discrimination, without apology or reticence is wholly unacceptable in the work place.

“Simply put, in the eyes of the law homosexuality is not wrong… To suggest that [it is] in the workplace is unlawfully discriminatory.”

There is plenty to contest in those few statements – for example, British law does not regard homosexual behaviour as a crime, but where does it say it is “not wrong”? – but the idea that expressing a view at variance with the moral consensus in society, or even the law, is a sacking offence is totalitarian.

This is particularly obvious when the context is that of an ongoing dialogue between two equals on generally friendly terms. It is up to those two adults to manage their disagreements, not for one to run to the boss crying discrimination. A sensible employer would talk it through with them both, while remaining impartial on the issue itself. Such an employer would also provide that a good worker who could not in conscience read a story to the children about a same-sex family would not have to do so. Evidently there are others who could do it.

For their part, Sarah Mbuyi, who is a Belgian national, and CLC are arguing their case on European Union laws and rights instruments. In addition they are citing a declaration passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, January 29, on “Tackling intolerance and discrimination in Europe with a special focus on Christians” in response to other examples of disrespect for the rights of Christians. The Telegraph reported on March 2:

Members of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, made up of MPs from national parliaments, passed the resolution in response to a report detailing a series of cases involving British Christians.

They include Gary McFarlane, a former Relate counsellor, and Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar, who both resisted performing tasks they believed would amount to condoning homosexuality which they believe is against the teaching of the Bible, and Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was forbidden from wearing a cross at work.

The three challenged their treatment at the European Court of Human Rights but lost. However the court upheld a claim from Nadia Eweida, a BA check-in clerk who was sent home because the small cross she wore contravened the airline’s uniform policy.

The employment tribunal has not released its decision.

Slider photo credit: JANE MINGAY FOR THE TELEGRAPH

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet