The Court of Appeal hearing for the Felix Ngole case was heard in the Royal Courts of Justice on the 12th & 13th March 2019. The case reference is C1/2017/3073 and the transcript was licensed and released under the Open Government Licence 3.0 with the consent of Felix Ngole. For anybody interested (and concerned) about the right to freedom of belief, the transcript makes for fascinating reading. The submissions of Mr. P. Diamond (representing Felix Ngole) and Ms. S. Hannett (representing the University of Sheffield) were heard by Lord Justice Irwin, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and Sir Jack Beatson.
For those who need a reminder, the background to this case is that Felix Ngole, a social work student at Sheffield University was first disciplined, and then dismissed from his Degree course, following the anonymous receipt of copies of some FaceBook posts, where Felix had chosen to engage online with some people who were attacking a US county clerk, Kim Davies, withdrawing from that discussion when he felt that it had degenerated into name-calling and abuse. Someone had taken the trouble to go back through his FaceBook feeds in order to craft a case against him, one that the university authorities took very seriously, despite Felix’s exemplary academic track-record, and despite the absence of any direct evidence that he had ever behaved in a manner that might be interpreted as discriminatory towards others. Felix is a Christian, and the topic at the heart of the FaceBook discussion was same-sex marriage. Clearly, in the contemporary context, this is indicative of a battle of worldviews, but the transcript reveals a great deal of how the issue of toleration is working in practice. The two days of the Appeal hearing amount to 99 pages and 43 pages respectively, so please forgive me for attempting to summarise some of the key points – the transcript is public domain, and immensely readable, so you can check for yourself. Here then are some of the key themes:
(1) Mr. Diamond, representing Felix, from the outset places this case within the broader context of our freedoms and their interaction with the demands of the State – our own rights to freedom of belief and the articulation of that belief. We do not need to look very far to observe States which have a profound allergy to such freedoms. Equally clearly, Ms. Hannett is keen to restrict the entire scope of the consideration to this single context, that of social work. She argues that it is a ‘special case’, quite separate from any other professional context, but nowhere supplies any basis for that assertion – it merely hangs in the air. Not surprisingly, the Lords Chief Justice raise the prospect of multiple other professional contexts which might be caught if Sheffield University win the Appeal. All of us can see that the erosion of hard-won liberties continues incrementally, if such matters are only considered on a piece-meal basis.
(2) There are undercurrents to the original case which suggest that it has proceeded on the basis of some muddying of the waters. The original communication to Felix summoning him to a disciplinary meeting did not specify the reason. When pressed, the University would not disclose the reason. The accuser was always anonymous. Later on, it was found that the notes of the meeting had been destroyed. It seems clear from the transcript, that Felix had asked for clarification as to how he might better manage the sensitive intersection between belief and his professional role, and made very little progress in that direction. An independent witness, there to support Felix, attests to this lack of clarity throughout.
(3) One chilling aspect which emerges from the narrative is how little the University authorities understand about people like Felix, orthodox Bible-believing Christians. It is not just that they do not like Christian belief, they consider it inherently discriminatory, and they have no understanding of why such belief may hold together, what justifies it, how it applies consistently. There is a profound ignorance at a fundamental level, but nobody cares about that – the enforcement of the secular mindset has done its work. Instead of any nuanced, two-way reasoning of the issues, the onus is on Felix to understand the alternative worldview and accommodate himself wholly to it. This is what totalitarianism looks like in practice.
(4) One word or theme which is prominent in the transcript is the word ‘ambiguity’. At times, the text suggests that the problem is not Felix’s beliefs per se, but rather that he chose to express them. This seems to be an inadequate emphasis – all of us are, in some sense, the product of our belief-systems, in terms of the ways in which we choose to live our lives. The only difference between a muzzled Felix, and a Felix summoned to a disciplinary hearing, is where someone else has identified him as holding those internalised beliefs. And the one thing which makes that difference is some kind of communication, so those beliefs are now out in the open. Apparently, Prof. Marsh, who presided over Felix’s dismissal from the Degree course is not subject to this kind of limitation, and is publicly active in LGBTQI++ matters.
At other times, the argument revolves more around how he expressed himself, whether Felix articulated his views moderately, or robustly, or via quotations from the Bible. Bear in mind that the context (here) for such expression is only where another person asks for a direct explanation, rather than the alternative scenario of a bigot who sought to impose his views on all and sundry. It was accepted by the University that such a situation would never have described Felix who had always been courteous and considerate towards others, including same-sex couples. Methinks that this aspect is something of a red-herring: it would not have mattered how carefully or lovingly Felix articulated his beliefs – once they were out, so would he be.
Ms Hannett draws what seems to me to be a quite naïve and unrealistic distinction between ‘posting on FaceBook’, and ‘preaching in a Church’ (Felix is a lay-pastor). In her dichotomised world, the first is unacceptable, whereas the latter is (barely) acceptable. There is enough equivocation in the text to render even that interpretation suspect, but even so, it will not work. For church sermons get listened to (by many), broadcast, and then put on the interweb. And, as most of us now know, some atheist activists are visiting churches to record or note sermons so that they may ‘out’ people that they wish to get rid of, from our universities and colleges. In practice, there is no distinction to be drawn between the ‘private’ discourse within the walls of a church, and the ‘public’ discourse of social media. All is one, and the clear lesson we are to draw from Ms Hannett’s argument is that Christians have nowhere to hide, and will be pursued into our ghettos, no matter how inoffensive and quiet we try to be. This hints very strongly in the direction of ‘thought-crime’ being the real offender, so Ms Hannett’s protestations about not judging Felix for his beliefs ring somewhat hollow.
We await the judgement from this Appeal, but what is left hanging in the air is the precious idea of toleration. As a multicultural, multi-faith society, we have to learn to tolerate each other, otherwise the word might as well be excised from the dictionary. To seek to argue that one particular worldview trumps another is simply to subvert the very idea of equality, and reduce everything to some kind of power-play. That’s where we’re headed unless someone in authority peers over the brink, and perceives the nature of the destination.