Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has welcomed the verdict in favour of a Christian unfairly demoted for recording on Facebook his opposition to same-sex marriage in church - even though he strongly disagrees with the man's opposition to marriage equality.
Adrian Smith lost his managerial position with Trafford Housing Trust and had his salary cut by 40 per cent, after writing on the social media site that gay weddings in churches would be "an equality too far".
The comments were not visible to the public, and were posted outside work time. The trust claimed Mr Smith broke its code of conduct by expressing religious or political views which might upset fellow workers.
But LGBTQ rights activist Mr Tatchell, as strong supporter of same-sex marriage for those who want it, says that the case is about free speech and fair employment practices, not homophobia. He welcomed the court verdict in favour of Mr Smith.
"This a victory for free speech and fair play," said Peter Tatchell in a statement today. "Although Adrian Smith opposed religious same-sex marriages, he supported the right of gay couples to get married in a civil ceremony in a register office. He is entitled to his view and should never have been demoted. I am glad that my statement in support of Adrian was used in his legal case and that he has been vindicated."
He continued: “Adrian's opposition to religious organisations being forced to conduct same-sex marriages is shared by the Prime Minister and the Equality Minister, the gay rights group Stonewall and the entire leadership of the Church of England. If Mr Smith is guilty, then they are all guilty.
"Mr Smith voiced his opinion in a calm, non-abusive manner. He was not threatening or intimidating.
"Free speech is too often being eroded in the name of protecting people against real or imagined offence. It is a precious freedom and should only be limited in extreme circumstances, such as when people incite violence.
"I wish Adrian supported gay marriages in churches, but he is not a nasty homophobe. It was always absurd to suggest that he was some kind of bigot. He's not.
"Trafford Housing Trust do good work. But in this case they over-reacted.
"They were wrong to demote Adrian and cut his salary over remarks he made on his personal facebook page, opposing churches being forced to conduct same-sex marriages.
“The Trust was acting with good intentions in a bid to ensure equal opportunities, non-discrimination and inclusive service provision. Although its commitment to equality for lesbian and gay people is commendable, its response to Mr Smith’s remarks was excessive and disproportionate," said Mr Tatchell.
Mr Smith wrote on his private facebook (not the facebook of the Trafford Housing Trust): “an equality too far.....the bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women if the state wants to offer civil marriage to same sex then that is up to the state; but they shouldn’t impose its rules on places of faith and conscience.”
Mr Tatchell added: “This is not a particularly homophobic viewpoint. Adrian Smith’s opposition to churches being compelled to hold gay marriages is shared by much of the population, including most, if not all, equality and human rights organisations.
“I am opposed to churches being forced by law to conduct same-sex marriages. I do, however, support an end to the legal ban on faith organisations holding gay weddings if they wish to do so. The Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism want to perform same-sex marriages and they want the law changed to enable them to do this. I support their appeal for law reform.
"Adrian Smith made his comments in his own time on his personal facebook page, which is not viewed by the general public. He expressed an opinion. He did not personally discriminate against anyone. There is no evidence that he treated any of his gay housing clients adversely.
“His only possible misdemeanour is that he made his remarks on a facebook page where he identifies himself as an employee of the Trafford Housing Trust, allegedly contrary to the Trust’s rules.
"In a democratic society, Adrian has a right to express his point of view, even if it is misguided and wrong.
"Freedom of speech should only be limited or penalised in serious circumstances, such as when a person incites violence against others. Mr Smith's words did not cross this threshold.
"It would have been sufficient for Trafford Housing Trust to have warned him about making potentially discriminatory remarks in forums where he is identified as their employee," said Mr Tatchell.
* Peter Tatchell Foundation: http://www.petertatchellfoundation.org/