Demoted Christian wins legal fight in UK
A Christian who was demoted for posting his opposition to gay marriage on Facebook has won his breach of contract action.
Adrian Smith lost his managerial position, had his salary cut by 40%, and was given a final written warning by Trafford Housing Trust (THT) after posting that gay weddings in churches were “an equality too far”.
The comments were not visible to the general public, and were posted outside work time, but the trust said he broke its code of conduct by expressing religious or political views which might upset co-workers.
Mr Smith brought breach of contract proceedings, saying the trust acted unlawfully in demoting him.
And today Mr Justice Briggs ruled in his favour at London’s High Court.
The judge said that the trust did not have a right to demote Mr Smith as his Facebook postings did not amount to misconduct, and the demotion imposed by way of purported disciplinary sanction constituted a breach of contract.
He said that the “very modest” damages due to Mr Smith was the very small difference between his contractual salary and the amount actually paid to him during the 12 weeks following his assumption of his new, but reduced, role.
He added: “I must admit to real disquiet about the financial outcome of this case.
“Mr Smith was taken to task for doing nothing wrong, suspended and subjected to a disciplinary procedure which wrongly found him guilty of gross misconduct, and then demoted to a non-managerial post with an eventual 40% reduction in salary.
“The breach of contract which the trust thereby committed was serious and repudiatory.
“A conclusion that his damages are limited to less than £100 leaves the uncomfortable feeling that justice has not been done to him in the circumstances.”
He added that if Mr Smith had commenced proceedings for unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal, rather than starting an action for breach of contract in the county court, there was every reason to suppose that the tribunal would have been able – if it thought fit – to award him substantial compensation for the unfair way he was treated.
If financial stringency made it practically impossible for Mr Smith to bring such proceedings, then the injustice he had suffered, although very real, was something the court was unable to alleviate by a substantial award.
Later, Mr Smith said in a statement: ``I'm pleased to have won my case for breach of contract today. The judge exonerated me and made clear that my comments about marriage were in no way 'misconduct'.
“My award of damages has been limited to less than £100 – but that is for technical legal reasons and the judge made it clear he was not able to award me a much larger sum.
“But I didn’t do this for the money – I did this because there is an important principle at stake.
“Britain is a free country where people have freedom of speech, and I am pleased that the judge’s ruling underlines that important principle.
“But this sad case should never have got this far. Long ago, Trafford Housing Trust should have held their hands up and admitted they made a terrible mistake. Had they done this then my life would not have been turned upside down and my family and I would not have had to endure a living nightmare.
“However, to the bitter end, they claimed I had broken equality policies and brought the Trust into disrepute – all because, like millions of people, I support traditional marriage.
“Something has poisoned the atmosphere in Britain, where an honest man like me can be punished for making perfectly polite remarks about the importance of marriage.
“I have won today. But what will tomorrow bring? I am fearful that, if marriage is redefined, there will be more cases like mine – and if the law of marriage changes people like me may not win in court.
“Does the Prime Minister want to create a society where people like me, people who believe in traditional marriage, are treated as outcasts? That may not be his intention, but, as my treatment shows, that’s what will happen.
“The Prime Minister should think very carefully about the impact of redefining marriage on ordinary people.”
Matthew Gardiner, chief executive at Trafford Housing Trust said: ``We fully accept the court's decision and I have made a full and sincere apology to Adrian. At the time we believed we were taking the appropriate action following discussions with our employment solicitors and taking into account his previous disciplinary record.
“We have always vigorously denied allegations that the Trust had breached an employee’s rights to freedom of religious expression under Human Rights and Equalities legislation and, in a written judgment handed down on 21st March 2012, a district judge agreed that these matters should be struck out.
“This has been a case about the interpretation of our code of conduct and the use of social media by our managers.
“This case has highlighted the challenges that businesses face with the increased use of social media and we have reviewed our documentation and procedures to avoid a similar situation arising in the future. Adrian remains employed by the Trust and I am pleased this matter has now concluded.”
In response to the amount of money awarded to Mr Smith, he added: “Sadly, the first time we knew that court proceedings had been issued against us was when we read about it in the Press and we had little option but to defend our position.
“We had tried to come to a settlement with Mr Smith which would have resulted in him receiving 10 times the amount he was claiming, but he chose to reject this offer.”
He said the Trust would be making no further comment.
The dispute began in February 2011 when Mr Smith saw an article on the BBC News website headed ``Gay church marriages get go ahead''.
He linked to it on his personal Facebook page, which can only be viewed by friends, and friends of friends, and added the comment: “An equality too far”.
Two colleagues read the remark and one of them posted a response asking Mr Smith to explain what he meant.
The next evening he posted: “I don’t understand why people who have no faith and don’t believe in Christ would want to get hitched in church.
“The Bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women. If the state wants to offer civil marriage to the same sex then that is up to the state; but the state shouldn’t impose its rules on places of faith and conscience.”