Is it acceptable for a teacher of secular subjects to express views on religion and morals in the course of classes?
In Mrs S Powell v Marr Corporation Ltd (England and Wales: Religion or Belief Discrimination)  UKET 1401951/2016, the claimant taught 16- to 24-year-olds with “challenging behaviour” . She was employed from 9 May 2016; and her terms and conditions provided that her first six months of employment would be probationary, during this time the respondent’s disciplinary procedure would not apply [9 &10]. On 25 July 2016, she covered a lesson that was ordinarily taught by another tutor. At some point, an altercation arose in the classroom and when her manager, Mrs Barker, arrived, Mrs Powell and a learner, K, were having a “heated discussion”. Ms Barker asked Mrs Powell to leave, then spoke to five of the eight learners – three having already left . They complained about being “preached at all day about Christianity”, that one had been told that “he was a bad Christian for believing in homosexuality” and another, openly gay, that she “will be going to hell if she does not repent her sins”, and that Mrs Powell had made a third “repeat the prayer of repentance before he was allowed to leave his 1:1 sessions with her” .
Mrs Powell was suspended then summoned to a disciplinary hearing. Subsequently, she told Ms Preston, the HR manager, that:
“I think that it is appropriate for me to share Christian views, I would like to say that teachers believe in different things and learners would ask to them and they would tell them what they believed by answering questions. So me answering questions is appropriate, if people don’t believe in Christianity then they shouldn’t be upset and people don’t have to share my views. Why people felt this way was because one person wanted payback and if he wasn’t there then this situation wouldn’t have happened as he was pinpointing out my views” .
Finally, she was dismissed. She claimed that her dismissal had been directly discriminatory on grounds of religion or belief. As a comparator, she relied on Andrew Spargo, the tutor for whom she had covered on 25 July 2016: his probationary period had been extended following concerns about his expression of political views and other conduct . Ms Barker confirmed that she had had recent meetings with Mr Spargo and that she would be extending his probation by three months, monitoring his classroom activity and conducting regular focus groups .
The parties agreed that Mrs Powell’s belief in Christianity was a protected characteristic under s.10(3)(a) Equality Act 2010 . The ET did not accept Mr Spargo as a comparator for the purposes of s.23 EqA, identifying material differences between the two cases . Mrs Powell’s procedural complaints did not support an inference that she was dismissed because of her religious belief . The ET concluded that she had been dismissed because she had allowed herself to be drawn into a conversation in which she expressed her personal religious views; those views, in particular on homosexuality, had caused the learners to become upset; she had allowed the situation to escalate and had lost control of the class; and her conduct had provoked complaints not only from learners but also from parents .
As to s.13 Equality Act 2010 and Article 9 ECHR:
“… the right to manifest a religious belief is not absolute, it is subject to and qualified by Article 9(2). A reasonable limitation may be placed upon the manifestation of religious belief in the workplace, in particular for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. Proselytisation in the workplace is an area where it has been recognised that it may be legitimate to limit the manifestation of religious belief, since there is obvious scope for that to impact adversely on colleagues or service users. The claimant did not have an unfettered right under Article 9 to seek to persuade her colleagues and learners to her religious belief” .
The BAILII record seems to suggest that Mrs Powell allowed herself to be drawn into expressing her views. The report leaves a reader with the impression that this was a case of teacher-baiting that succeeded in getting her to overreact. Some sanction against the ‘Learners’ may have been justified.
“Is it acceptable for a teacher of secular subjects to express views on religion and morals in the course of classes?”
That opening question isn’t one which this judgment answers. The correct answer, I hope, is “yes”, but “within reason”.
I have been awaiting this judgment. After reading the summary here, I began to feel that the teacher perhaps brought this disaster upon herself. However, when I read the full judgment, I got a very different impression indeed.
The facts are that she held certain beliefs and expressed them forthrightly. She also lost control of her class and allowed disruptive elements in her classroom to set an agenda, which was eliciting her expression of her beliefs, specifically in order to become enabled to complain about them, damaging her career.
When she lost control of her class, her manager did nothing to empower her to regain control. Instead, she expelled the teacher and took over the class, in order to elicit complaints, behind the teacher’s back.
When, eventually, there was a disciplinary hearing, there was nothing in it that addressed the complaint that the teacher had lost control of her class. Instead, the disciplinary hearing was dominated by the hostility of her employer towards her particular beliefs. Only in the tribunal did the employer begin to back-pedal on its hostility towards the particular beliefs of the employee, and to resort to the argument that she had, in any case, lost control of her classroom.
This is a case that it is possible to summarise with many different spins and emphases. The above is my spin and emphasis. I wavered after reading the account Frank Cranmer gave of the judgment, which seemed very damning of the teacher but which, I discovered, was quite selective in which details were mentioned. Having read the judgment itself, I am firmly back on the teacher’s side. She wasn’t treated fairly.
There is a difference between justly attacking a weakness in a teacher, whereby she allows her class to melt down by allowing a discussion of matters of belief and discriminating against particular beliefs one dislikes by attacking those beliefs. When this woman was supposed to be given an opportunity to save her job, she found her beliefs under attack. That reminds me uncomfortably of a different case, A v Cornwall, in which a father was supposed to be given an opportunity to save his relationship with his son, but found his beliefs under attack instead.
See: Conservative religious views, parental access, the ECHR – and blogging: A v Cornwall Council