A Christian social work student at the University of Sheffield has won a legal battle after being thrown off his course for comments made on social media about sexuality.
The Court of Appeal has ruled that he was treated unfairly and has ordered a new hearing before a different Fitness to Practice panel.
Felix Ngole was studying for a Masters in social work when he commented on a news story on Facebook relating to same sex marriage, saying: “Same sex marriage is a sin whether we accept it or not”, “Homosexuality is a sin, no matter how you want to dress it up” and “[Homosexuality] is a wicked act and God hates the act”.
He also used Bible verses to back up his statements which were then reported to the university which started disciplinary procedures.
A ‘Fitness to Practice’ committee found him in breach of the profession’s guidelines. The decision was upheld by the University’s Appeal Committee.
In 2017, Mr Ngole started legal proceedings against the University but a High Court judge dismissed the case.
On Wednesday, three judges overturned this decision, saying it should be reconsidered.
Felix Ngole told Premier’s News Hour: “I’m excited, it’s a positive ruling today and I’m very, very thankful to God.
“I think this case is very important not just only to me. Of course I’ve won the case, which is obviously very, very important, but I think other Christians can look back at this ruling today and know that they are free to hold views and to express those views as well.
“So, there are wider implications in terms of freedom of expression for Christians and non-Christians as well.
“It is not only for me, it is other professionals who are Bible-believing Christians, those who don’t believe in the Bible, those who just love freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Those who love democracy, you know, we are all winners today.”
The court’s judgement said that Felix Ngole did misunderstand that the university was not issuing a blanket ban on him expressing his opinions and that freedom of speech is not an unqualified right.
The judges said his reaction was not in accordance with the profession’s code of conduct.
The Court of Appeal also concluded that the university’s disciplinary proceedings were “flawed and unfair” to Mr Ngole and disproportionate by not issuing a warning.
The judgment said: “The University wrongly confused the expression of religious views with the notion of discrimination. The mere expression of views on theological grounds (e.g. that ‘homosexuality is a sin’) does not necessarily connote that the person expressing such views will discriminate on such grounds. In the present case, there was positive evidence to suggest that the Appellant had never discriminated on such grounds in the past and was not likely to do so in the future (because, as he explained, the Bible prohibited him from discriminating against anybody).”
It also said that the university failed to look for a middle ground option and “at no stage did the university discuss or give the Appellant any guidance as to how he might more appropriately express his religious views in a public forum.”
In a statement to Premier, a spokesman for the University of Sheffield said: “We support the rights of students to hold and debate a wide range of views and beliefs. However, for students studying on courses that lead to professional registration, we have a responsibility to look at how any concerns raised could impact a student’s fitness to practise once registered.
“Fitness to practise committees use national professional guidance and often need to consider a student’s insight and consideration about their chosen profession. This case was therefore not part of the University’s standard disciplinary procedures or about its support of freedom of speech.
“The Court dismissed the majority of the appeal submitted by the applicant and has only upheld one aspect to do with early procedural processes. The University will be considering its response to the judgement.”
Christian Concern has further criticised the response of the university and told Premier the management need to realise the strength of the verdict passed by the court.
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