A campaigning Christian barrister has called upon Northern Ireland’s social work regulator to spell out whether or not people who voice traditional marriage views are suitable to work in the field.
Andrea Williams, co-founder and chief executive of Christian Legal Centre, said the Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC) is engaged in “smoke and mirrors” by not making it plain whether publicly expressing such views could affect someone’s fitness to practice in the Province.
The issue has its roots in the case of Felix Ngole, who in 2015 was kicked off a two-year social work course by the University of Sheffield for making remarks about homosexuality on Facebook.
He appealed the decision via a judicial review in the High Court in London, backed by the Christian Legal Centre, but lost the case last month.
Numerous media reports of the case quote Mr Ngole as having made the following two remarks during an online discussion (which had been about an American official who had refused to register same-sex marriages).
The first was that “the Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin”.
The other reported remark is that “same-sex marriage is a sin whether we like it or not. It is God’s words and man’s sentiments would not change His words”.
Mr Ngole argued in court that European law guarantees him freedom of speech and thought; the university meanwhile said he had undermined his “fitness to practice” by making comments “derogatory of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals”, and had shown “no insight”.
After this appeal was rejected late last month, the News Letter contacted Northern Ireland’s regulator for social work and social care, the NISCC.
It was asked if it would cause concern about someone’s fitness to practice in Northern Ireland if they expressed the same views as Mr Ngole, as quoted above.
It responded: “NISCC would be very concerned if a registrant lacked sufficient insight where they could not recognise that it is inappropriate to post derogatory comments against any individual or group on social media. A situation like this would require assessment by our fitness to practise team.”
The NISCC code of conduct says social workers should promote equality, which means “treating everyone fairly and ensuring they have access to the same opportunities irrespective of their race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief”.
Pressed whether it would consider Mr Ngole’s specific remarks above “derogatory”, it said: “NISCC is not able to comment on the merits of a decision based on information published in the media.
“We have not had access to the full detail of this case, or been able to test it against our standards - for example the context of the remarks or any mitigating evidence that was submitted by the student or the university.
“All that we can confirm is that if a case like this was referred to our fitness to practise team, we would investigate to ascertain all the facts.”
Andrew Williams responded by saying: “What we have is a lack of guidance by the regulating body with regards to the kind of comments that can be made, and the sort of comments that might be said to undermine public confidence in the profession.”
She said that Mr Ngole’s views on marriage were “perfectly lawful”, were widely accepted until the last decade or so, and are still held across the globe.
If this is “something that makes you unfit to be a social worker, then they should say it”, she told the News Letter.
“Is that where we’re getting to? Because that’s the logical extension of reasoning in the case of Felix Ngole. They need to be clear.”
He said that the NISCC’s response amounts to “smoke and mirrors”.
“They’re basically not wanting to nail their colours to the mast. They’re playing both sides. They need to be clear.
“If they’re on the side of free speech and freedom, they need to say clearly that people can hold these views and be social workers - or the opposite.
“If they’re going to punish people who believe marriage is between a man and woman, then they need to say it. But what they’ve done is avoid the issue.
“What a fair and right regulator will do is say clearly that they believe in freedom of speech, that they believe in the freedom of expression of views, and that you’re free to operate. Otherwise what they do is they close off the social work profession to Christians - and they need to be clear about that.”
Concerning Mr Ngole’s own case, she said there was evidence of homosexual service users who had supported him, and that he had “never discriminated against anybody”.