DARTFORD, Kent — A court of appeal in the United Kingdom has upheld a ruling that a nurse was not unfairly dismissed when she lost her job in 2016 over complaints that she was sharing her faith with patients.
“The respondent employer did not have a blanket ban on religious speech at the workplace. What was considered to be inappropriate was for the claimant to initiate discussions about religion and for her to disobey a lawful instruction given to her by management,” concluded the panel of Justices Gross, Singh and Haddon-Cave.
“It is important that cases such as this should not become over-elaborate or excessively complicated,” wrote Justice Rabinder Singh. “The respondent conducted a fair procedure, by way of investigation, at the disciplinary hearing and at the subsequent appeal.”
As previously reported, Sarah Kuteh, a Roman Catholic who has worked as a nurse for over 15 years, was accused of having “unwanted discussions” with patients at Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford, as well as violating conduct guidelines in regard to speaking about religion.
Part of Kuteh’s job included collecting and reviewing assessment questionnaires that included an inquiry about the person’s religion. If the person left the question blank, sometimes she would ask why, and would proceed to talk about her own faith.
“I discuss my religion with the patient and how I have found Jesus Christ and how much peace I have, especially when patients come to me feeling really, really devastated sometimes,” she outlined in a video released by the group Christian Concern. “I have had to reassure them on the basis of the joy and peace I have found in the Lord.”
Kuteh, who assessed an estimated 50 patients a week, received a warning in April 2016 and consequently sought to be more careful about the matter.
“I explained to [my supervisor] that this only comes about when I have to go through the questionnaire with the patient, because on the questionnaire there’s an area where the patient has to state their religion and that could prompt a conversation,” she said.
And after receiving a letter providing instruction about the issue, “I’d always say to the patient or ask the patient if they were comfortable, and most of them were,” Kuteh explained.
However, as three patients complained in the months that followed, Kuteh was investigated, suspended and then fired. According to the Telegraph, one patient said they were provided a Bible but did not want it, and another said that Kuteh was “preaching” at them.
“I was walked out of that hospital after all I had done during all my years as a nurse and I was told I couldn’t even speak to any of my colleagues,” Kuteh said. “All I had done was to nurse and care for patients. How could it ever be harmful to tell someone about Jesus?”
The NHS Trust defended the firing, telling reporters, “We have a duty to our patients that when they are at their most vulnerable they are not exposed to unsolicited beliefs and/or views, religious or otherwise. We feel we have acted appropriately in this case.”
An employment tribunal upheld her termination in April 2017. Kuteh went on to find a new job at a nursing home, but was subject to a number of restrictions and conditions, and had to work under supervision. Darent Valley Hospital had reported Kuteh to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) upon her dismissal, as it questioned her “fitness” to remain in the nursing profession.
However, the NMC, while determining that Kuteh could “put patients at unwarranted risk of emotional harm,” found that there were “no issues” with Kuteh’s “clinical practice,” and that she had also made “significant progress.” Her supervisor at the nursing home further told the NMC that Kuteh is “a kind, caring, honest, friendly nurse” and “a valuable member of the team.”
A panel therefore lifted restriction from the nurse.
In its ruling last week, the court of appeal specifically pointed to the testimony of one patient who described his interaction with Kuteh as being like a “Monty Python skit.”
“He had replied ‘open minded’ to the question on the form concerning religion and alleged the claimant had told him that the only way he could get to the Lord was through Jesus,” Judge Singh wrote. “[Kuteh] told him she would give him her Bible if he did not have one; gripped his hand tightly and said a prayer that was very intense and went ‘on and on.'”
She then allegedly had him sing part of the hymn “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”
“In particular, the incident on June 3, 2016 … was on any view clearly inappropriate,” Singh remarked on behalf of the court of appeal. “The decision to dismiss the claimant for misconduct was one which the Employment Tribunal concluded fell within the band of reasonable responses open to the respondent in this case.”
“Even having regard to the importance of the right to freedom of religion, it was plainly open to the ET to conclude that this dismissal had not been unfair,” he concluded. “Similarly, the Employment Appeal Tribunal was plainly correct, in my view, to regard the appeal as having no reasonable prospect of success and therefore in dismissing it.”
Kuteh is being represented by The Christian Legal Centre and, according to The Daily Mail, is in discussions regarding her options for appeal.