A Christian housing manager, Adrian Smith, is taking legal action after he was demoted for posting allegedly homophobic comments on his personal Facebook page. I am backing his bid for reinstatement and I'm prepared to testify in his defence. Strange but true.
Trafford Housing Trust (THT), based near Manchester, was wrong, in my view, to demote Smith and cut his salary. They demoted him on the basis that he had described as "an equality too far" a BBC website report that the government was planning to allow same-sex couples to "marry" in churches.
In fact, the government had no such plans. It was proposing that religious organisations that wish to, should be allowed to host same-sex civil partnerships - not marriages.
When Facebook friends queried his stance, Smith added: "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."
In other words, Smith accepted that the state should be free to conduct same-sex civil marriages, but he opposed churches being forced to conduct them.
THT construed these remarks as causing offence and insinuated that they had bought THT into disrepute. In addition, although the comments were made on his own facebook page, Smith identified himself as working for THT which, they say, contravenes their social media rules for employees.
It has also claimed that there is more to this story than has been reported. However, Smith's solicitor, Tom Ellis, questions this claim. He says that THT's defence, already served to the court in advance of the trial, includes no significant new revelations.
Adrian Smith made his comments in his own time on his own 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 has treated any of his gay housing clients adversely.
Smith voiced his opinion in a calm, non-abusive manner. He was not threatening or intimidating.
His only possible misdemeanour is that he made his comments on a facebook page where it mentions that he works for THT, which is allegedly contrary to THT regulations. This is hardly a major crime. It certainly does not warrant the disproportionate punishment inflicted upon him.
Smith's demotion cuts his annual salary from £35,000 to £21,000 - equivalent to an indefinite fine of £14,000 a year. This is a very harsh punishment for a minor infraction of the THT's rules regarding postings on social media.
If a gay employee was treated this harshly by a Christian organisation for writing pro-gay comments on their personal facebook page, there would quite rightly be an outcry and accusations of homophobia. Why, then, are some lesbian and gay people supporting such a harsh penalty for Adrian Smith?
The views expressed by Smith are not particularly homophobic. He actually supported same-sex civil marriages by the state. His opposition to churches being compelled to hold gay marriages is shared by much of the population and by all equality and human rights organisations - plus the Prime Minister, 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.
Even I'm 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 Jews want to perform same-sex religious marriages and they want the law changed to enable them to do this. I support their appeal for law reform.
I have no doubt that THT acted 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, THT's response to Mr Smith's remarks is unjustified and over-the-top.
I have written to THT, urging them to reconsider their decision, and to revoke Smith's demotion and salary cut. In my opinion, if any disciplinary action was justified, it would have been sufficient for Trafford Housing Trust to have warned him about making contentious remarks in social media forums where he is identified as their employee. I hope they will now do this.
In a democratic society, Adrian Smith and others have a right to express their point of view, even if some people think it is misguided and wrong. Freedom of speech should only be penalised in extreme circumstances, such as when a person incites violence against others. Smith's words did not cross this threshold.
The right to speak our mind is hard-won and precious. It means the right of others to say things that many of us might find disagreeable and offensive. In a free society, even homophobes have a right to free speech - providing they don't incite violence.
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