A second non-professional panel member has been suspended from hearing an appeal by a school worker who claimed she was fired because of Christian convictions due to obvious bias.
Christy Higgs, 46, was dismissed from Farmar School in Fairford, Gloucestershire, for gross misconduct in 2019 after sharing Facebook messages criticizing study plans LGBT relationships in primary schools.
Mrs Higgs, supported by the Christian Law Centre, took the school to the Employment Tribunal, claiming she had been unlawfully discriminated against because of her Christian beliefs.
The school denied firing the mother-of-two because of her religious beliefs and said she was fired because of the language used in the messages.
In its ruling in 2020, the court concluded that her religion was a “protected characteristic” as defined by the Equality Act, but the school had lawfully dismissed her.
Mrs Higgs appealed the decision to the Employment Appeal Tribunal in London, but the start was delayed after lawyers learned that one of the lay members of the panel hearing the case was a senior official Union of National Education (NEU).
NEU supports relationship education, sex and health education in schools.
Andrew Morris is a former assistant general secretary of the union and was one of the two lay people who sat next to Mrs Justice Eadie.
After hearing the application, Mrs Justice Eady said she would allow Mr Morris to be removed.
“At the relevant time, the lay member was a member of the organization and held a leadership position and the organization campaigned on the topics of debate identified in the plaintiff’s Facebook posts,” the judge said.
“Whether or not Mr Morris agreed with all the statements made by the NEU in his capacity as Assistant General Secretary, he is inevitably associated with the views expressed which were very clearly on the opposite side of the debate to the appellant’s side.
“These were not simply statements by an organization expressing views on current issues, as many unions do, but by a very specific association that, on behalf of its members, showed a very genuine interest in the issues at hand. and took on a campaigning role in this regard.
“In these circumstances, I find it difficult to see how Mr. Morris, as Assistant Secretary-General, can publicly distance himself from these views.
“Under these circumstances, whatever Mr. Morris’s personal position, an impartial observer informed in this way would have to conclude that there remained a real possibility of unconscious bias.”
It is the second time a panel member has been dismissed from Mrs Higgs’ appeal for apparent bias.
Edward Lord was suspended last year due to apparent bias due to public statements about LGBTQ+ rights.
The hearing continues with Ms Justice Eadie, President of the Labor Appeal Tribunal, sitting alone.
Mrs Higgs, from Fairford, Gloucestershire, shared and commented on posts raising concerns about the relationship education at her son’s Church of England primary school.
Students were to learn about No Outsiders In Our School, which is a series of books teaching about the Equality Act in primary schools.
Mrs Higgs, who posted on Facebook under her maiden name, shared two posts with around 100 friends in October 2018.
One message referred to “brainwashing our children” and added: “Children will be taught that all relationships are equally valid and ‘normal’, so that same-sex marriage is the same as traditional marriage and that gender is a matter of choice.” , not biology, so they decide what gender they are.
“We say once again that this is a vicious form of totalitarianism aimed at suppressing Christianity and removing it from the public arena.”
An anonymous complaint was made to the school and Mrs Higgs was suspended and dismissed following a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct.
Richard O’Dair, representing Mrs Higgs, said that by sharing the Facebook posts she was expressing her freedom of speech and religion.
He told the hearing: “It is an undisputed fundamental principle of convention jurisprudence that freedom of speech on important matters is accorded a very wide latitude in relation to modes of expression.
“This is the law. As an appellate court, you need to be sure that the employment tribunal understood this and took it into account.
“In my opinion, you can’t have that level of confidence.
“There is another point that the court should have taken into account, but did not take into account. That the swearing was not hers.
“As a participant, she conveyed the language of democratic discussion to others. There is not an iota of awareness that the tribunal was aware of such subtleties.
“The Employment Tribunal erred in law in concluding that a reasonable person could conclude that the claimant was homophobic.
“Freedom of speech is under threat and is being fought hard. In my opinion, it is also true and could not be more true that freedom of religion is under such existential threat.
“We should not forget that the plaintiff expressed her faith and concern for children in this case, trying to stimulate political debate.
“And where we’re at is evidence that not only freedom of speech, but also freedom of religion is under threat.”
After hearing all the submissions, the judge adjourned the decision.