Social work, social media, religious liberty and empathy.
Headlines and soundbites often give a warped impression of the world. At the end of October, a conservative Christian lost an action in the High Court, after having attempted to force Sheffield University to revisit its decision to terminate his studies as a student social worker. In fairness, someone reading the popular press and social media accounts of the story could easily come away with the impression that Felix Ngole was expelled from his course simply because he had posted ‘anti-gay’ views on the CNN website, during a debate about the Kim Davis case. (Davis was a U.S. County Clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences to same sex couples). Unsurprisingly, the truth was a lot of complicated than this.
In reality, Ngole was deemed to be incapable of ever being deemed fit to practise as a social worker, but this was not the result of making some controversial remarks online. As it is clear from the judgment, the decision of the university was based upon his failure to appreciate why expressing his beliefs in that particular place and manner was potentially damaging to both service users and public trust in the social work profession. Despite having been given numerous opportunities, Ngole was not willing to reflect upon the impact which his comments might have had on people reading them, and neither was he prepared to undertake not to repeat his actions, nor to refrain from expressing the same sentiments if questioned by a service user.
Ms Rowena Collins Rice, who heard the case as a Deputy High Court judge, was at pains to point out that there was no problem in Mr Ngole holding the beliefs which he did. She stressed that many conservative religious people can and do embrace such convictions, whilst being effective and respected members of the social work profession. In fact, the issue was the student’s unwillingness to be empathetic and sensitive to the needs of others. In his mind, his right to share his religious opinions was paramount, and trumped all competing considerations, and clearly, that stance was not tenable for a social worker.
Furthermore, the court noted that it is not unusual for professionals to be expected to be mindful of the implications of their conduct outside of the immediate work environment. This is fairly uncontroversial: doctors, nurses, solicitors, teachers and many others have to consider how their behaviour online and elsewhere might have an effect on their professional context. Ngole had tried to argue that he had no way of knowing what would or would not be acceptable, as undoubtedly there were some Bible verses which could be posted online without causing an issue. Therefore, how was he to know which ones were problematic, and where to draw the line? This was given short shrift. Firstly, in the university setting, there was ample guidance available should he have wished to seek it out, and secondly, making these judgement calls was part and parcel of life as a professional.
Again, it is possible to follow the logic of the court here, and exactly the same point could be made about appropriate behaviour without a religious dimension. It is very possible for many professionals to post photographs of themselves online which are entirely uncontroversial, even if they are identifiable, and equally, it is not difficult to imagine a professional uploading an image which could have a detrimental impact. The truth is that neither employers nor regulatory bodies can reasonably be expected to devise infinitely detailed guidance on what kind of pictures are appropriate. Consequently, people need to work out for themselves that snaps of activities on a stag/hen weekend in Amsterdam might have different connotations than a one of crossing the finish line on a sponsored run.
Ngole also tried to argue that religious speech should be treated as different and special from other types of expression, in part because it was apt to be misunderstood if measured by secular standards. This line was unsuccessful, as the majority of service users and members of the general public who read comments on the internet were going to approach them from a secular point of view, and regardless of how the words were meant, they were inevitably going to be received in a way which caused hurt, confusion, anger and doubt about his perceptions and motives.
Ultimately, the decision about Ngole’s future as a social worker was determined not by his religious beliefs, but by his inability to consider the impact of his statements on other people. Comments made publicly online are all too easily traceable. Someone known to be a social worker, expressing the view that homosexual lifestyle was an abomination, would inevitably raise questions in the minds of readers as to how that social worker would see and treat members of the LGBTQ community. Even worse, a service user who happened to be gay or transsexual for example, would potentially know that the person making decisions about whether they would be allowed to adopt a child, or have their own child removed from them, regarded their sexuality identity and life choices as fundamentally wrong and damaging. How could a vulnerable person, in a highly emotional situation, be expected to cope with that from someone in a position of power over them?
Understood in context, this was certainly not a case of someone losing their professional future because of their religious beliefs. To the contrary, this was an instance of an individual being unable to appreciate the impact of his behaviour on others, and therefore sadly being unable to meet the professional standards required of individuals in the demanding and essential world of social work.
Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis to seek re-election, attorney says (CBS news 7/11/17)
Christian thrown out of university over anti-gay remarks loses appeal (The Guardian 27/10/17)