Doctor’s dismissal for being anti-LGBT upheld but response to actor questionable

By Savi Hensman
October 8, 2019

An employment tribunal dismissed an appeal by a doctor, David Makereth, against being sacked for being unwilling to treat transgender clients with respect. This was probably correct. But an actor sacked for a negative Facebook post on lesbians, gays and same-sex love, Seyi Omooba, possibly has a legitimate case for unfair dismissal.

In both cases, Christian beliefs were cited, though many Christians today believe that their faith favours love and justice for all, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT). A sometimes tricky balance is required in law and society between freedom of expression and belief and protection of others from discrimination and damagingly harmful speech.

Refusing to call a transgender woman 'she'

The Department for Work and Pensions had employed Mackereth as a disability assessor in the West Midlands. He was sacked after reportedly telling a manager that he would not refer to "any 6ft tall bearded man" as "madam". He had been asked if he would address someone born male as "she" and "Mrs" and replied that "As a Christian, I would not be able to accede to such a request in good conscience."

He claimed that he was discriminated against under the Equality Act 2010, which covers religion and belief. However, correctly in my view, the tribunal pointed out the risk that such refusal would be “likely to cause offence and have the effect of violating a transgender person’s dignity or creating a proscribed environment, or subjecting a transgender person to less favourable treatment”.

However, I believe they were wrong to attribute this to his belief and state that “" lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others." The issue is of professional behaviour, not an ideology of so-called “transgenderism”. A flight attendant is free to believe that the earth is flat but not to warn nervous passengers that the aeroplane might fall off the edge.

There may be considerable ethical challenges for a Christian working as a DWP assessor, in a climate of harsh treatment of clients, but this is not one. While I think the theological objections to diversity in gender identity are wrong, someone can misinterpret the Bible but still do their job in a way that treats LGBT people with respect. Doctors are not there to force their own moral choices on others: they are free themselves not to express a transgender identity that they feel but cannot impose this on others, violating their sense of self when they might be feeling especially vulnerable.

There would be no way of avoiding the risk of causing deep distress and potentially further damaging someone’s already poor health. Even if people who had officially changed their registered gender were sent to other assessors, someone who had done so unofficially, or accompanied by a transgender spouse, friend or relative, could be subjected to an abuse of professional power.

If health professionals and managers were allowed to impose their own beliefs on others, this would cause mayhem. An emergency department doctor who was a Jehovah’s witness could refuse to refer a patient for an urgent blood transfusion. A strongly anti-Christian nurse might not allow prayers by a dying person’s bedside. An administrator who was an extreme utilitarian, unaware of all that frail older people offer to families and communities, could pressure disabled patients over 80 to refuse further treatment.

Holding a belief that is controversial, even wrong, is different from forcing this on others. Someone who thinks that, ideally, everyone should fit certain conventions based on their sex at birth can still, as a courtesy, call a service user or colleague “he”, “she” or “they”.

Acting a part

Omooba, a promising young actor, had been chosen for the lead role of Celie in a musical based on The Colour Purple, when a Facebook post she had made some years ago surfaced. "Do you still stand by this post? Or are you happy to remain a hypocrite?" asked another actor, Aaron Lee Lambert. "Seeing as you've now been announced to be playing an LGBTQ character, I think you owe your LGBTQ peers an explanation."

The post stated, “Some Christians have completely misconceived the issue of Homosexuality, they have begun to twist the word of God. It is clearly evident in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 what the Bible says on this matter. I do not believe you can be born gay, and I do not believe homosexual practice is right.” Also quoting the biblical book of Genesis on marriage, she went on, “God loves everyone, just because He doesn’t agree with your decisions doesn’t mean He doesn’t love you. Christians, we need to step up and love but also tell the truth of God’s word.”

As numerous Christian thinkers and church members would agree, passages expressing biblical writers’ disapproval of sexual exploitation and excess in the ancient world do not readily map on to loving, equal partnerships today. What is more, the notion that people are not 'born gay' sometimes ties into the homophobic belief that being attracted to the same sex is something people choose and from which they can be 'converted', leading to often damaging practices.

Nonetheless, it is unclear that Omooba’s ability to work with people who were LGBT, or with family and friends who were, need be too badly damaged by views she expressed in a non-work context. For instance, people who strongly believe in veganism as the only ethical path can get on well with meat-eaters at work, if reasonably mutually respectful.

It can indeed be painful to work with, or receive services from, someone with views that might suggest one is flawed or unequal. Places of work and study may rightly set rules and conventions to protect the vulnerable and promote conviviality – and people of faith may be ready to 'go the extra mile'.

However the risks of blocking what people might say, especially in non-work spaces, for fear that they will be punished should be taken seriously. It may well be the case that the measures taken against Omooba were excessive, unless it is shown that she could not draw a boundary between such views and respecting others’ rights and dignity.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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.