In a landmark judgment, the UK Court of Appeal has upheld the rights of British Christians to freely express their faith by handing victory to former student social worker Felix Ngole. Overturning a High Court decision to uphold Felix’s expulsion from Sheffield University, the crucial outcome represents a major development of the law. It is now clear that Christians have the legal right to express biblical views on social media and elsewhere in public 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 restrict free speech on social media.
The ruling is likely to be relied upon in hundreds of future cases. Felix was expelled in 2016 from his social work course at the University of Sheffield 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 jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples. During an online political debate, many views were exchanged on the Christian faith. A devout Christian, Felix quoted Bible verses affirming the traditional Christian opposition to same-sex marriage and of the sinful nature of homosexual activity.
Some months later, Felix was reported to the University of Sheffield by a fellow student and was subsequently disciplined in a Fitness to Practise hearing. He was informed that he had brought the social work profession into disrepute and was then expelled from the course, losing the career he had worked so hard for. In the court hearings, the university argued that Felix had ‘lacked insight’ into the effect of his posts on social media. During his Fitness to Practise hearing, the University had told him that the expression of his Christian views was unacceptable and he was effectively told either to renounce his faith or stay silent on pain of losing his career.
In the High Court hearing, the University of Sheffield implied that Felix was not allowed to express his Christian viewpoint on same-sex marriage or homosexuality on any public forum, including in a church. The Court of Appeal held that it was the university that was ‘lacking insight’ in not understanding a Christian viewpoint. In addition, the Court of Appeal praised Christian Concern co-founder Pastor Ade Omooba MBE for urging that the university seek caution and compromise. 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 anonymously.
The court ruled that: “The expression of views on theological grounds does not necessarily connote that that person will discriminate on such grounds.” It was further recognised that Felix had never been shown to act in a discriminatory fashion. The outcome of this case will have significant implications for freedom of speech. Comments made by people on social media, often many years ago, have recently been arbitrarily used to silence viewpoints that people dislike or disagree with. Commenting on his win, Felix said: “‘My personal loss is gain for future Christians’. This is great news, not only for me and my family, but for everyone who cares about freedom of speech.
Felix continued ”I have suffered tremendously as a result of how I was treated by the University and I feel that 4 years of my life have been taken from me. Despite all this, I feel full of joy that what I have lost will be so much gain to Christians in the future as a result of this important ruling for freedom.” Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which supported Felix, 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.”
Williams continued “It is shocking that the university sought to censor expression 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. “Christians 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 all Christian freedom cases.
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