Nursery worker wrongly sacked after answering lesbian colleague’s question

By Savi Hensman
June 9, 2015

A London nursery unlawfully discriminated by dismissing a worker after a chat with a colleague ended in hurt feelings, an employment tribunal found. The case of Sarah Mbuyi versus Newpark Childcare highlights the risks of workplace discussions on emotionally charged topics such as religion and sexuality.

Most Christians in Britain believe that same-sex relationships can be morally right. A minority, including Mbuyi, disagree. Managers thought she had harassed a lesbian colleague by expressing this view.

But when Judge Broughton and other panel members heard the case, it became clear that it was the workmate who had raised the subject. In addition the nursery had failed to investigate fairly, Watford Employment Tribunal found.

Mbuyi was an evangelical who, while not trying to force her faith on others, was perhaps rather too keen in the view of some workmates to share it when an opening arose. In January 2014, in a conversation about what had happened during the holidays, she mentioned her church activities.

A lesbian colleague indicated discontent that she could not get married in church and raised the question of how Mbuyi’s church would respond to her. Mbuyi expressed the view that a homosexual way of life was sinful but this should not prevent anyone from attending church, since everybody sins.

The workmate was upset and left the room. She did not make a formal complaint or bring a grievance but managers carried out a less than thorough investigation and ended up sacking Mbuyi for discrimination.

In an appeal, she pointed out that she had not raised the issue and stated that she would work with, support and love all children and their parents, including those from same-sex couples, though if she was directly asked about her faith she would answer honestly. The nursery did not reinstate her so she took legal action.

However in the tribunal’s view, future problems could have been avoided by less drastic means, if both employees had been told not to discuss the subject of religion and sexuality again. “The law would fall into disrepute if an individual could ask a question, knowing the likely response and, on receiving it, however genuinely upset, claim it was unwanted contact and, hence harassment,” the judgment stated.

Sarah Mbuyi was backed by the Christian Legal Centre, with which many Christians would disagree in relation to its stance on various issues, including claims of anti-Christian persecution in the UK. In a news release on the judgment, the National Secular Society pointed out that the verdict undermined claims “that Christians are not protected from discrimination when their rights come into conflict with gay rights.”

The case “shows that the equality laws are working properly and that Christians that have a genuine grievance (rather than the hair-trigger persecution narrative that the Christian Legal Centre usually deals in) will be treated justly by the law,” said Terry Sanderson, the Society’s president and a long-serving gay rights activist. "Although we think the tribunal came to the right decision in this case, it does illustrate that when people try to evangelise in the workplace it can so easily lead to conflict with colleagues.”

Despite some media reports, the case clearly does not give the go-ahead for the minority of Christians who still believe that same-sex partnerships are always wrong, or that men should exercise headship over women, to push their views on others.

It also highlights the risks of workplace conversations straying into complicated matters of belief. It is also a reminder that trying to evangelise insensitively can put other people off rather than attracting them to Christianity.

The full judgment can be found on https://www.secularism.org.uk/uploads/mbuyi-et-judgment.pdf.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.