Employment, freedom of speech and Evangelical views on sexuality: Walters

Another one we missed…

Background

In Rev Keith Walters v The Active Learning Trust Ltd & Anor [2022] UKET 3324619/2019 the claimant, the minister of an independent Evangelical congregation, supported himself by working as full-time caretaker at the Isle of Ely Primary School [34]. When the dispute arose, the parties agreed that Mr Walters believed that his role as a minister took precedence over his employment and that there might be times when he would need to be released from school to fulfil his ministerial duties such as funerals [37]. The Trust, however, disputed his contention that it had been agreed that, so long as he was present at the start and end of the day, there was no issue with how he spent his time and, further, that he reserved his right to be “unequivocal in publicly stating the Christian doctrine on various issues, some of which may be unpopular” [38]. The ET accepted that there was an agreement to be flexible but did not accept that Mr Walters was either free to do what he wanted during work time or had carte blanche to make public statements against the school’s policies [39]. Further, he had agreed to the Trust’s policies and procedures, including the staff Code of Conduct [40 & 41].

On 1 June 2019, he tweeted:

“A reminder that Christians should not support or attend the LGBTQ ‘pride month’ events in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Christian faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children” [51].

His tweet attracted lots of press and social media attention [52] and he was sent hate mail [54].

The school received three written complaints [55-59] and investigated him for misconduct/gross misconduct [62]. In June 2019 he resigned with one month’s notice – but he did attend the scheduled disciplinary hearing [81], which gave him a final written warning to last for twelve months [84]. An internal appeal was unsuccessful [90] and he took the matter to an Employment Tribunal, claiming direct and indirect discrimination and constructive dismissal.

The arguments 

Mr Walters’ case was that that he had not discriminated against anybody, had been careful to restrict his comment to the Pride March and to avoid any wider criticism of any individual and/or members of the LGBTQ community, and had not acted in a homophobic manner. He argued that, as pastor of a local church, it was entirely reasonable for him to state what he considered to be a Christian response to the Pride March – that attending it was not compatible with a biblical world view. Further, there had been nothing in his tweet that linked him to the Trust. In choosing to make his tweet a disciplinary matter,  therefore, the Trust had contravened his rights under Articles 9 and 10 ECHR. Though he accepted that those rights were not absolute, he did not believe that his actions had come anywhere near the threshold for the Trust to interfere, and the decision to bring disciplinary proceedings had therefore been unreasonable [87].

Before the ET, he relied on his Christian belief and, in particular, his belief in the literal truth of the Bible, his belief that sexual relationships were only appropriate within heterosexual marriage, his duty to proclaim the gospel to others and his belief that Christians “should encourage each other to live Godly lives and therefore avoid events and locations in which sin will or might be celebrated” [92]. The Trust argued, however, that his views about Pride and “lewdity [sic], nudity and foul language” and his belief that it was “especially harmful for children” to be exposed to Pride were not necessarily a religious or philosophical belief protected by the Equality Act 2010 [102].

The judgment

The ET was satisfied that Mr Walters’ beliefs qualified as “religious” within the terms of the Equality Act; however, it accepted the Trust’s submission that those particular opinions were not necessarily protected by the Act [102]. It rejected his claim of direct discrimination in relation to the investigation: he had been investigated not because of his religion or belief, but because the school had received written complaints [113-114]. His claim of direct and indirect discrimination in respect of his dismissal, contrary to s 39 Equality Act 2010, also failed.

However, his claim of indirect discrimination against the Trust succeeded. The ET regarded as “highly relevant” the fact that he had made the tweet outside of work and on his personal account, as part of his role as a Christian minister [153]. Further:

“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 practise 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” [154].

The members of the ET did not themselves agree with Mr Walters’ views and comments – “but that is not the test” [156]. His claim of indirect discrimination was upheld [175]. The Tribunal would contact the parties separately about listing for a remedy hearing [176]. [With thanks to Bruce Clark for the link to the judgment.]

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Employment, freedom of speech and Evangelical views on sexuality: Walters" in Law & Religion UK, 29 August 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/08/29/employment-freedom-of-speech-and-evangelical-views-on-sexuality-walters/
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4 thoughts on “Employment, freedom of speech and Evangelical views on sexuality: Walters

  1. Intrigued that the ET thought it necessary to say they disagree with the claimant’s views. Given their hedging and the outcome, it seems clearly not prejudicial, but it looks odd to me that they made their views known at all. Is this usual?

  2. Overall, a good judgment, I think.

    Although I have the greatest of sympathies for brother Walters, my guess as to how this would play out, based on news reports, including those published by the Christian Legal Centre, turns out to have been right, as set out in paragraph 145:

    “Had the claimant resigned when the final written warning was imposed, the claimant may have had a case for constructive dismissal if it was found that the imposition of the final written warning was either discriminatory directly or indirectly. In this case the claimant jumped too soon. He had resigned when the decision was taken to proceed to the disciplinary situation and therefore nothing that occurred after this time is relevant to the reasons why the claimant resigned and whether the claimant can establish that the respondent breached the implied term of trust and confidence.”

    Moral: Never jump, with fingers crossed, muttering “constructive dismissal” under one’s breath as one falls; always keep clam and brazen it out, waiting to be pushed.

    Personally, I think one would have to suffer from serious paranoia to misinterpret the word “they” in the tweet to be anything other than an obvious reference back to the events the faithful were being admonished not to attend, mentioned in the previous sentence.

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