Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Permission to speak

Is Adrian Smith a Christian martyr or just a casualty of corporate conformism?

It's an everyday story of religion and society in 21st century Britain. A man, who happens to work for a housing trust, expresses an opinion on his Facebook page to the effect that churches should not be compelled to conduct gay marriages. He gets demoted and loses a third of his wages. He's suing. The Mail on Sunday has taken up his case. So has Cristina Odone, who compared the plight of Britain's Christians with that of the Nonconformists who left for the American colonies in the 17th century rather than submit to the established church.

Hmm. Adrian Smith's case certainly shows something, but whether this is really a story about religious freedom I have my doubts.

But let's look at that disputed Facebook post. Adrian Smith's considered view, expressed in response to a question from one of his online friends, was that

The Bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women. If the State wants to offer civil marriages to the same sex then that is up to the State; but the State shouldn't impose its rules on places of faith and conscience.

Which seems uncontentious enough. As Peter Tatchell has said, it's not a particularly homophobic comment. Indeed, it represents government policy. As the piece which Smith linked to shows (from the date, the incident took place in February) there are no plans to force places of worship to conduct gay weddings; merely a possibility that they might be allowed to do so. But misunderstanding the import of suggested legislation is not much of a reason for taking someone's job away from him. Unless there were aggravating factors (and Trafford Housing Trust has declined to go into much detail), this looks like an overreaction. It looks vindictive.

The Trust has issued a statement, the first two paragraphs of which, ominously, are taken up with self-congratulatory remarks about how it has been "rated as one of the best 100 public sector employers in the UK", has won various community award and received a number of "big ticks". The main charge against Adrian Smith appears to be that he is in breach of a condition in a new code of conduct which limits the use by employees of social networking sites. In particular, he made his comments in a page "that identified him as a manager at Trafford Housing Trust."

The Christian Institute has a template into which it invariably fits the cases that it highlights: a template of persecution. The template is that of Christians targeted and oppressed by a secularist establishment that is intolerant towards any expression of their faith, and most especially intolerant of Biblically-derived but politically incorrect opinions on matters such as homosexuality. It's a template that appeals as much to the Daily Mail as to Christian pressure groups such as the CI, because it provides a simple explanatory model covering everything from a street preacher calling on gay people to repent, to a local authority's alleged desire to replace Christmas with "Winterval".

Yet there's a huge variability even between individual instances of "oppression" championed by the Christian Institute. Adrian Smith merely expressed a personal opinion on his Facebook page, an opinion that had no relevance whatever to his job. Compare this with Lilian Ladele, the Islington registrar who has now taken her case for unfair dismissal to the European Court of Human Rights. She was disciplined for refusing to perform gay civil partnership ceremonies, which was part of her job. There's a difference, but it's a difference easily overlooked if you're predisposed to view all these cases as instances of religious persecution.

The fact that Adrian Smith was expressing a view derived from his understanding of Christianity is (or should be) incidental. The real question is whether, in a free and democratic society, an employer should have the right to limit what its employees do or think in a private capacity.

Smith's Facebook page was, we are told, readable only by friends (or at any rate by Facebook friends), but even had it been public the number of people who saw it will have been small. No one can have been under the impression that Smith was making the statement as an official representative of Trafford Housing Trust, even if he did mention his job in his personal profile. The very notion is absurd. Had he been commenting on housing policy or making offensive personal comments about colleagues, the Trust would have been entitled to take disciplinary action. But Smith's opinions on gay marriage or the Bible are utterly irrelevant to his functioning as a housing manager. Public or private, and so long as they are not criminally inciteful, his opinions are his business.

Trafford Housing Trust seems to have embraced (and even codified) a dangerous doctrine that their employees are never off-duty; that everything they do or say publicly is done or said on behalf of the company; that their opinions are no longer their own but they can only express views in accordance with company policy. In a free society, this is outrageous. Indeed, it is tyrannical. It so happened that Adrian Smith had an opinion about gay marriage. Someone else might have views about the Euro, or take part in a political protest, or have an unconventional sex life. This case is not really about religious freedom at all. It's about freedom to be yourself, even if you are fortunate enough to work for a company that has been "recognised by Investors in People with their Gold and Health and Wellbeing Awards."