Bristol Employment Tribunal (ET) has ruled that a Christian school assistant was not unlawfully sacked after being dismissed from her job for sharing Facebook posts which criticised the introduction of teaching about LGBTQ+ relationships in primary schools.
In 2018, Kristie Higgs shared two posts via her private Facebook account (posting under her maiden name) which openly criticised the teaching of LGBTQ+ relationships and community at her son’s Church of England primary school and encouraged other Facebook users to sign a petition against plans to make relationship education compulsory for young children.
Following this, the head teacher at the school at which Ms Higgs worked, Farmor’s School, a secondary school in Fairford, Gloucestershire, received an anonymous complaint which described the posts as being “homophobic and prejudiced to the LGBT community”.
Consequently, Kristie Higgs was suspended from her role as pastoral administrator and work experience manager and an investigation was initiated by Farmor’s School. The investigation was then followed by a meeting at a hotel, whereby Ms Higgs commented that she was questioned for six hours in an “intimidating” manner and the Facebook posts she shared were compared to “pro-Nazi” views. Following the meeting, Ms Higgs was dismissed from her role at Farmor’s School for gross misconduct.
Kristie Higgs brought an ET claim for discrimination and harassment. She argued that her dismissal breached her freedom of speech and religion, and that due to her lack of belief in matters relating to gender fluidity and same-sex marriage, and her beliefs relating to when “unbiblical” ideas are promoted that she should counter them.
The ET dismissed Ms Higgs claim that there was a causal connection between her beliefs and the way she was treated by the School. The judgment stated:
“Our view was that her treatment was not because of the relevant beliefs and accordingly her claim of direct discrimination failed.”
“Although not stated as clearly or simply as this, the act of which we concluded Mrs Higgs was accused and eventually found guilty was posting items on Facebook that might reasonably lead people who read her posts to conclude that she was homophobic and transphobic. That behaviour, the school felt, had the potential for a negative impact in relation to various groups of people, namely pupils, parents, staff and the wider community.
“We were also conscious that Mrs Higgs made it clear that she had no intention of desisting from making any further such posts in the future.”
Kristie Higgs claim for harassment was also dismissed by the ET, with the judgement stating:
“This was an unexceptional disciplinary process. Whilst it clearly would have been unpleasant for Mrs Higgs to experience it, we were not satisfied that the conduct had either the purpose or effect of violating her dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her.”
Ms Higgs has commented that she plans to appeal against the ruling of the ET.
This case will give comfort to employers that they can take action against employees who express views on social media platforms which are discriminatory or cause offence to those with protected characteristics to guard the organisation’s reputation.
It will be important for any such action to be taken in accordance with the organisation’s policies on equality and use of social media which should set out clear expectations for employees.