Faith in Focus: Protected Belief vs Business Reputation

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) has dismissed a discrimination claim from Seyi Omooba, a Christian actress, who was dismissed from her position as the lead role in a theatrical production of The Colour Purple, and dropped by her agency, over historical comments on social media regarding her belief that homosexuality was sinful.

Her agents, Michael Garrett Associates, and the theatre were found to not have dismissed Ms Omooba from her role because of her expression of her religious beliefs, but because of the effect of the adverse publicity her social media posts had on the commercial success and reputation of the production.

This case explores the delicate balance between ensuring an employee’s freedom of expression, while protecting an employer’s reputation and commercial interests.

Background

Ms Omooba was cast to pay the lead role, Celie, in a stage production of The Colour Purple. Celie is seen as an iconic lesbian role and the play would have included the depiction of a lesbian relationship involving her. At the time of her casting, Ms Omooba was not aware that the role would include portraying such a relationship as part of her character.

Before rehearsals for the production began, it came to light that Ms Omooba had previously posted on social media with regards to her religious belief that homosexuality is a sin and that a person cannot be born gay. Following a public outcry that an iconic gay character could be portrayed by someone with homophobic beliefs, Ms Omooba was dismissed from her role and dropped by her agents, with both contending that her dismissal was due to the adverse publicity and reputational damage that her comments had caused the production.

Though Ms Omooba admitted that she would have resigned from the role, once she discovered the character’s homosexuality, she contested the reasons for her dismissal and brought claims for religious or belief discrimination, harassment, and breach of contract.

The Employment Tribunal concluded that while her religious beliefs were protected, her claims should be dismissed. Further, the tribunal explained that while Ms Omooba’s religious beliefs had formed part of the reasoning for her dismissal from the play, it was the expression of her beliefs, and the resulting negative publicity from that expression and the impact on the success of the play, that led to her dismissal. Ms Omooba appealed the Employment Tribunal’s decision.

Decision

The EAT rejected the appeal, agreeing with the Employment Tribunal’s conclusions regarding her dismissal. They agreed that Ms Omooba was not dismissed because of her beliefs but because of the adverse publicity that her social media postings had had on the cast, the audience, the reputation of the play’s producers and the commercial success of the production.

Regarding Ms Omooba’s claim of harassment, the EAT found that neither the theatre nor her agents had caused or contributed to a negative impact on Ms Omooba. Further, Ms Omooba was aware of the seriousness of the situation and the issues facing the theatre and her agents due to her comments made on social media.

The EAT also agreed with the Tribunal that Ms Omooba’s claim for a breach of contract should fail. Ms Omooba had received her full performance fee and, therefore, had not suffered any pecuniary loss. Furthermore, because Ms Omooba had confirmed that she would have resigned from the role upon finding out the character was lesbian but had not raised this with the theatre or sought to fully inform herself on the character of Celie, it was found that Ms Omooba was in breach of her express obligations to the theatre and the implied term of mutual trust and confidence. 

Learning points for employers

This case demonstrates the difficulty employers may face when an employee holds religious beliefs and walking the tightrope of freedom of expression against reputational risk.

While it is understood that some Christians believe that homosexual acts are sinful and that their views can be protected under the Equality Act 2010, the judgment in this case shows that it is possible to separate a particular religious belief and a purportedly objectionable manifestation of that belief. In this case, it was the public and far-reaching nature of her comments on social media that led to the issues that justified her dismissal. The EAT’s ruling indicates that while an employer cannot fairly dismiss an employee solely because of their held beliefs, if they can prove that to continue the employment will harm their business, they may be able to rely on this reason to fairly dismiss.

For further information, or to discuss the issues raised within this case, please ​contact us to speak to a member of our Employment Team.

Darren Smith
Partner, Employment
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This reflects the law and market position at the date of publication and is written as a general guide. It does not contain definitive legal advice, which should be sought in relation to a specific matter.

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