LONDON — A student at a prominent university in the United Kingdom who was expelled over comments that he made on Facebook outlining the biblical stance on homosexuality has won his case upon appeal. The court expressed concern that Christians and others in professional careers would have to hide their faith in all of public life lest anyone discover their views.
“The university adopted a position from the outset of the disciplinary proceedings which was untenable: namely, that any expression of disapproval of same-sex relations (however mildly expressed) on a public social media or other platform which could be traced back to the person making it, was a breach of the professional guidelines,” wrote the Court of Appeal.
The University of Sheffield also “wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination,” the three-judge panel concluded.
“The mere expression of views on theological grounds (e.g. that ‘homosexuality is a sin’) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views will discriminate on such grounds,” it said. “In the present case, there was positive evidence to suggest that the appellant had never discriminated on such grounds in the past and was not likely to do so in the future (because, as he explained, the Bible prohibited him from discriminating against anybody).”
The court said that the university could have issued a warning and provided guidance for the future rather than dismissing the student from his course studies.
As previously reported, in September 2015, Felix Ngole, 39, checked his Facebook account and saw a news story in his feed regarding Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who had gone to prison for declining to personally sign same-sex “marriage” certificates.
As a number of commenters were speaking against Davis, Ngole decided to chime in and note that “the Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin.” When he was asked where the Scriptures state that homosexuality is sinful, he provided the citations, including the biblical law in Leviticus.
However, nearly two months later, Ngole’s remarks were brought to the attention of administrators at the University of Sheffield, which touts itself as a “world top-100 university and number one in the U.K. for student satisfaction in the 2014-15 Times Higher Student Experience Survey.”
Ngole, who was a second-year Master’s student studying to be a social worker, then became the subject of a “Fitness to Practice” hearing, as he was advised that he “may have caused offense to some individuals” and had “transgressed boundaries which are not deemed appropriate for someone entering the social work profession.”
Following additional meetings, the Sheffield committee concluded that Ngole’s beliefs would negatively affect his “ability to carry out a role as a social worker,” and was consequently advised that he was “excluded from further study on a program leading to a professional qualification.” The school recently informed Ngole that he is “no longer recognized as a university student.”
“Your student record will be terminated shortly and your library membership and university computer account withdrawn. You may wish to contact your funding body for advice on your financial position,” it wrote.
Ngole appealed the decision, but in April 2016, he received a letter from the appeals office at the University of Sheffield stating that his post was “inappropriate” in light of the professional conduct standards outlined in the Health and Care Professions Councils (HCPC).
It was additionally asserted that Ngole had not “offered any insight or reflection” on the “potential impact” that his comments might have had on his Facebook friends, or how it would reflect on the social work profession.
With the assistance of the Christian Legal Centre, Ngole took the matter to the Royal Courts of Justice. However, while finding the university’s punishment of Ngole to be “indeed severe,” Judge Rowena Collins-Rice agreed with the university that his words could negatively affect his social work.
“Public religious speech has to be looked at in a regulated context from the perspective of a public readership,” she wrote. “Social workers have considerable power over the lives of vulnerable service users and trust is a precious professional commodity.”
Collins-Rice determined that while the “right to express the content of deeply held religious views deserves respect in a democratic and plural society,” the matter came down to “how [Ngole’s comments] could be accessed and read by people who would perceive them as judgmental, incompatible with service ethos, or suggestive of discriminatory intent.”
Ngole subsequently appealed, and on Wednesday, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision, ruling that the university’s “disciplinary proceedings were flawed and unfair.”
“These were the appellant’s religious and moral views, based on the Bible. Where he used his own expressions of belief, rather than biblical quotations, they mirrored biblical text,” it noted. “Indeed, as we have observed, the strongest term used in respect of homosexual acts was in direct quotation from Leviticus. The appellant had never been shown actually to have acted in a discriminatory fashion.”
The court expressed concern that the university’s viewpoint appeared to be that Christians can never voice such views other than behind closed doors lest someone aware of their line of work find out.
“In our view the implication of the university’s submission is that such religious views as these, held by Christians in professional occupations, who hold to the literal truth of the Bible, can never be expressed in circumstances where they might be traced back to
the professional concerned,” it outlined. “In practice, this would seem to mean expressed other than in the privacy of the home.”
“In practice, 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 on this issue other than in private,” the court continued. “Even then, what if a private expression of views was overheard and reported?”
To further illustrate the concern, the panel said that in following the university’s logic, Ngole would not even be free to speak his views at church.
“The postings in question here were found following a positive internet search by the anonymous complainant. What if such statements had been revealed by a person who had attended a church service or Bible class?” it asked.
The court asked the university to hold a new hearing over the matter.
“This is great news, not only for me and my family, but for everyone who cares about freedom of speech, especially for those working in or studying for caring professions,” Ngole said in a statement. “As Christians we are called to care for and serve others, and publicly and privately we must be free to express our beliefs, especially when asked, without fear of losing our livelihoods.”
“I have suffered tremendously as a result of how I was treated by the University of Sheffield and I feel that four years of my life have been taken away from me. Despite all this, I feel overwhelming joy that what I have lost will be so much gain to Christians today and in the future as a result of this important ruling for freedom.”