In a landmark judgment in the case of Felix Ngole, the Court of Appeal has upheld the rights of Christians to freely express their faith and overturned a High Court decision. The crucial outcome represents a major development of the law which results in Christians now having the legal right to express Biblical views on social media or elsewhere without fear for their professional careers.
This is the first Court of Appeal judgment regarding freedom of expression of Biblical views which sets limits on the rights of professional regulators to limit free speech on social media; the judgment will be an authoritative statement of the law which is likely to be relied upon in hundreds of current and future cases.
A major development in the law
Felix Ngole was expelled in 2016 from his course at the University of Sheffield where he was studying to become a social worker after quoting Bible verses on Facebook that were deemed critical of homosexuality.
In 2015, he had entered into a discussion on Facebook over the imprisonment of Kim Davies, the Kentucky marriage registrar who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples. In a robust online debate, views were exchanged on same-sex marriage, many openly discursive of the Christian faith. Devout Christian, Ngole, quoted Bible verses affirming the traditional Christian opposition to same-sex-marriage and of the sinful nature of homosexual activity.
Some months later, Felix Ngole was anonymously reported to the University of Sheffield; and subsequently was disciplined in a Fitness to Practice hearing. He was informed that he had brought the profession into disrepute and was dismissed from the course, losing his career.
It was the university that lacked insight
The university refused any compromise, arguing that Felix Ngole 'lacked insight' into the effect of his posts. The expression of his Christian views was found to be unacceptable by the university; and, in effect, he was required to stay silent on pain of losing his career. Felix Ngole felt he could not surrender his faith.
The University of Sheffield held that he was not permitted to express the Christian viewpoint on same-sex marriage or homosexual activity in any public forum, even including a church. He could never express his viewpoint in a work situation even if directly asked.
The Court of Appeal held rather that it was the University that was lacking insight and not Felix Ngole; further the Court of Appeal lavished praise on Christian Concern’s Pastor Ade Omooba for his good sense in seeking ‘caution’ and compromise.
Felix had never acted in a discriminatory fashion
The Court of Appeal condemned the position of the University whereby people would live in fear if private expressions of views were overheard; and could be reported by anonymous complainants. The Court of Appeal held that: ‘The mere expression of religious views about sin does not necessarily connote discrimination.' It was also recognised that Felix Ngole had never been shown to have acted in a discriminatory fashion.
Felix Ngole was represented by the leading religious rights barrister, Paul Diamond, who argued against the misuse of professional disciplinary processes to silence speech you disagree with. This case will have significant implications not just for Christian free speech, but in relation to all free speech. For example, comments made by people on social media (often many years ago) have been arbitrarily used to penalise viewpoints that people dislike or disagree with with a silencing effect on free speech.
"My personal loss is gain for future Christians"
Felix Ngole said: "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. As Christians we are called to serve others and to care for everyone, yet publicly and privately we must also be free to express our beliefs and what the Bible says without fear of losing our livelihoods.
"I am thankful to the judges for recognising that I did not discriminate against anyone and that it was not I who was entrenched, lacking insight or disproportionate in my approach to the issue, but the University of Sheffield.
"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.
"I would also like to thank the Christian Legal Centre and Paul Diamond for supporting me."
A message of freedom
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “This is a watershed case for Christians and a resounding victory for freedom of speech.
"We are delighted that the Court of Appeal has seen the importance of this case and made a ruling that accords with common sense. It is shocking that the University sought to censor discussion of the Bible in this way, and we hope this sends out a message of freedom across all universities and professions that Christians and others should be allowed to express their views without fear of censorship or discipline.
"Felix Ngole is a hero, and he and his courageous family have taken a stand for freedom in this case so that we and future generations of Christians do not have to. His case has always been one of the most disturbing and important cases the Christian Legal Centre has faced and if the judges had not made this ruling, the ramifications for Christian professionals across society would have been significant.
"Due to Felix's sacrifice, Christians and others now know that it is their legal right to express Biblical views on social media or elsewhere without fear for their professional careers. This is a major development of the law and must be upheld and respected in current and future Christian freedom cases.
“Despite this victory, this is not the end of Felix’s fight for justice. He must now go back to a University of Sheffield panel who will judge, in light of this outcome, his fitness to practice as a social worker. Full justice must be served and the university held to account so that this kind and compassionate man can finally work in a job that reflects his education and his ability, professionally and as a person. Our communities and the most vulnerable in our society need more Christian professionals like Felix, not fewer.”