CAMBRIDGE — An employment tribunal in the U.K. has ruled that a primary school “indirectly” discriminated against a pastor who served as a caretaker at the institution when leaders sent a written warning following complaints over his personal tweet opining that homosexual pride events should not be attended by Christians and children.
“It is one thing to have rules that apply during work and something else to extend those to one’s private life outside of work,” wrote Judge Sarah King, according to the Christian Legal Centre, which represented the pastor.
“To curtail the claimant’s freedom of speech outside of work, which is an important part of his role as a Christian minister and thus part of freedom to practice his religion, must be done with some exercise of caution and only in the clearest cases where the rights of others are being damaged should the school intervene to prevent the claimant from preaching.”
King noted that “evangelical Christian ministers will have views not necessarily shared by everyone in society, but that is part of their duty as a Christian minister to preach those beliefs.”
As previously reported, Keith Waters, 55, a pastor at New Connexions church in Ely and then-caretaker at the secular Isle of Ely Primary School, posted a status similar to one written by U.S. Catholic leader Thomas Tobin, during Pride Month 2019, changing out the word “Catholics” with “Christians.”
“A reminder that Christians should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Christian faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children,” he wrote.
Waters later explained that if one Googles photos of homosexual pride events, they will “come up with photographs of people who are naked, people who are engaged in sexual acts,” and “[c]hildren should never be exposed to nudity or sexual acts, whether that’s at gay pride or anywhere else.”
However, soon after publishing the tweet, Waters received a message from a journalist who accused him of attacking homosexuals. The next day, a reporter arrived at his church while he was preparing for the Sunday service and attempted to pressure Waters to apologize.
The matter was then published in the Cambridge Evening News, which stirred up public animosity against the pastor.
According to Christian Concern, funeral directors arrived at Waters’ door, advising his wife that they were there to “arrange his funeral.” He was also contacted by real estate agents, who stated that they had been informed he would be leaving the area “in a hurry.”
A false rumor was additionally spread that Waters was a child molester. City council members called for the pastor to be investigated for “hate.”
Fearing for his safety and that of his family, Waters deleted the post. Nonetheless, he was soon told by school officials that he was being placed under investigation as they had received complaints.
One complainant alleged that Waters had called for “violence against people who support the Ely Pride Festival,” and a teacher contended that Waters must be disciplined as his tweet could be considered “extremist” under the law.
Being advised that he had brought the school into “disrepute” as his post was “highly inappropriate and offensive” and issued a final written warning, Waters realized that he could no longer serve both as a pastor and a caretaker at the primary school. He consequently resigned and soon took the matter to court.
During a hearing before the employment tribunal in January, Waters stated that he did not realize the uproar his post would cause “because the reason for the tweet was borne out of love,” and it was directed toward fellow Christians.
“There will be things I have put on Twitter that others will fervently disagree with,” he said, according to the BBC. “My Twitter account makes it clear, as well as the individual tweets, that I am aiming this at Christians.”
Releasing its opinion on Friday, while the court did not side with Waters’ claims of direct discrimination and constructive dismissal, it found that Isle of Ely Primary School and its leadership, Active Learning Trust, went too far following its investigation into Waters’ tweet.
“We accept that it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim for the claimant to be investigated and called to a disciplinary meeting to explore further the relationship between the tweet and his roles, but we do not accept that giving the claimant a final written warning for his tweet in this context was a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aims,” King said.
Since his post was his own and not written as a school employee, the school could have simply released a statement noting that the pastor’s views do not reflect those of the institution, she explained. The written final warning did nothing to assuage the offended, as it was not released into the public domain.
“[W]e were satisfied that the claimant genuinely held these beliefs and that they formed a considerable part of how he lived his life as a Christian minister for his church. To the claimant they were cogent, serious and of the upmost importance,” King wrote. “Whilst a majority may not share those views, the claimant is entitled to hold them.”
Waters expressed relief at the ruling, stating that it provides speech protections for other pastors in the United Kingdom who may need dual employment to support their family.
“I took legal action, not because I wanted to sue the school, but because what happens to me goes to the heart of what it means to be free to preach the gospel in the UK,” he said in a statement. “I believed the issues my case raised were much bigger than anything that was happening to me and that it was the right thing to do.”
Waters also noted the emotional toll that the matter has taken on him and his family.
“In 37 years of employment, I have never been treated in such a heartless and hostile way. The freedom to resign from your job or be silenced from speaking as a Christian pastor is no freedom at all,” he stated. “I still stand by what I said, and I’ll always stand up for the truth.”