Felix Ngole, a Christian who believes homosexuality to be wrong, was expelled from his social work course at the University of Sheffield for quoting on the net, in his private capacity as a Christian youth leader, the Bible’s teaching on the subject. Over the course of three stressful years, he lost his first appeal to the courts, but was successful at the Appeal Court, which decreed that beliefs do not equate to discrimination. This is a highly significant judgement in terms of freedom of speech.
Felix Ngole has now spoken to Salisbury Review about his experience.
NM – Could you tell us what happened on your day of judgment? (at the Appeal Court)
FN – We travelled to London, not knowing the outcome, although we had an idea that it would go well. There was my wife and I, and a legal team from Christian Concern. Nobody from the university came.
NM – How important was the input of Christian lawyers?
FN – It was essential. I wouldn’t have had the money to fight the case. They represented me free of charge. And an average lawyer wouldn’t have had the expertise.
NM – I guess some lawyers know more about the Equality Act than Christian mores. Going back to the initial incident, please describe what happened.
FN – I was a youth leader with a church. The best way to engage young people is through social media, so I joined Facebook. One day, I became aware of a registrar in the USA, who was imprisoned after refusing to sign a same-sex marriage certificate. On her release she was mercilessly trolled. I tried to defend her against the abuse, by explaining Christian belief. I was asked by one guy: ‘Where in the Bible does it say homosexuality is a sin?’ So I presented to him six passages, from the Old and New Testaments. He accepted my response but others were enraged, and I left the discussion due to the many insults.
NM – How did the university hear of this?
FN – I had forgotten about it, but about two months later I received an e-mail from the university summoning me to an investigation. No reason was given. I was the student course ‘rep’, so I was aware of disciplinary process and knew this was not being followed. I replied that I would not come to a meeting without knowing the context. The tutor sent me a dossier of evidence, which included several pages of screen shots of the Facebook discussion. These documents were meant to be anonymous, but some bore the name of a fellow student on my course.
NM – Had this student voiced concerns about you previously?
FN – I usually got on well with her, so I felt betrayed.
NM – Did you have anyone to represent you at this stage?
FN – I attended the meeting with a ‘brother’ from another church in Barnsley.
NM – How did the meeting go?
FN – Very badly. There was the head of department, course leader and a secretary. I was told that I had breached the HCPC code of conduct.
NM – Is that the professional registration body for social work?
FN – That’s right. We got into a debate about sexuality. The head of department said that there is nothing wrong in same-sex relationships or being gay. I maintained my stance that Christianity regards such relationships as wrong. They wanted me to apologise. I showed them pages from the Bible, and the look on their faces was very negative.
NM – It sounds like you might as well have been referring to Mein Kampf.
FN – I was then referred to the fitness to practise panel. I sought help from Christian Concern, and a pastor named Ade Omooba represented me.
NM – What happened at the panel?
FN – It was as bad as the first meeting. I was asked: ‘Do you believe in what you posted on Facebook?’ The pastor argued that this questioning was unfair, as it seemed they wanted me to renounce my faith. The panel did not give their verdict at the time. I waited nearly two weeks before the letter arrived, stating that I had not reflected on the incident and had shown no insight. The decision was to expel me from the university.
NM – How did you feel?
FN – I took it really badly. It seemed very aggressive: I was ordered to return my student badge and identity card within ten days. It felt as if I’d committed a crime.
NM – What happened next?
FN – Christian Concern publicised my case in the media. It went to the High Court, but the ruling was in favour of the university. Then we launched an appeal.
NM – What have you been doing since you were ejected from the course? Did you have support at home?
FN – My wife has been very supportive. But we have three children and I needed to put food on the table. I applied for jobs, and on more than one occasion I was offered the job only for this to be withdrawn when the employer read of my case. This was despite me being transparent about my situation in interviews.
NM – Some might say that your belief that homosexuality is sinful would inevitably impede your working relationship with a gay client. How would you respond to that concern?
FN – I have worked with many gay people since I came to the UK from Cameroon, thirteen years ago. I honestly have no problem working with anyone. The university acknowledged that there was no evidence of discrimination past, present or future. Yet I was disciplined for discrimination!
NM – You are aware of Israel Folau’s case* do you think he could learn anything from your perseverance?
FN – I have a lot to learn from him. He has sacrificed much more than me: he lost a contract worth millions of pounds, and his career may be finished. He put everything on the line, defending his faith at all costs. I had less to lose.
NM – Are institutions such as universities biased against Christians, or are they simply following policy and the law? Is the Equality Act a direct challenge to observing Christian faith?
FN – That’s a very good question. I think that the university would have found some reason to kick me off eventually. They just don’t like my Christian beliefs. Sheffield University is very big on gay rights, and it would be hard for an observant Christian to survive. However, the Court of Appeal judge said that the university went too far in its interpretation of the code of conduct.
NM – Was the Equality Act mentioned at any time?
FN – Yes, in a very threatening letter from the university solicitor, which suggested that I had committed an offence against this act.
NM – What is your view of the Equality Act?
FN – I remember when it was passed, in 2010. I thought it was a good concept, but instead it has turned into a monster. In parliament they did not anticipate that it would be used against Christians, but that is what’s happened.
NM – How significant is your case to the campaign for freedom of speech, or is it merely a temporary setback for censorship on campus and in wider society?
FN – Many people think it’s a turning point, but it’s too early to tell. I’m not normally pessimistic, but our world is so liberal, judges are so liberal, that I fear that Christians will still be suppressed.
NM – Of course, that depends on what is meant by ‘liberal’. You seem to have been treated illiberally. Finally, do you intend to pursue a career in social work, and would you go back to Sheffield University?
FN – I’d like to continue with social work. But it’s a tricky situation. I need a fitness to practise panel to overturn the decision, but this will be hard. And if I complete the training there is no guarantee of a job. I could apply for vacancies in Community Care, but I think it would be impossible to get work. My sister is a social worker in London: she tells me that fellow social workers are upset and angry at the court decision. I have received hostile messages. But when I’m asked if I’d do the same again I have no doubt.
My Christian faith is worth more than anything to me.
*Israel Folau, the highest–scoring player in the history of Australian rugby shall wear the Wallabies shirt no more. At the prime of his career, the national rugby board sacked him for stating his Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin. This case has divided Australian society, and it probably influenced the shock result of the recent election. The Labor Party, widely predicted to supplant Scott Morrison’s Liberal government, was perceived as abandoning religious voters in favour of the LGBT agenda. Morrison had warned about the risk to freedom of conscience.
In a Catholic Herald article, Natasha Marsh described the support of mainstream churches for Folau as lukewarm at best, remarking: –
‘We have surely come to an extraordinary position in that only Pentecostals such as Folau in Australia, and the student Felix Ngole in Britain, are able publicly to articulate what we all supposedly believe.’
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