Felix Ngole and social work: free speech versus diversity

Picture of Felix Ngole, a young Black man with short black hair wearing a dark blue blazer over a dark blue waistcoat over a light purple shirt with a large cross hanging from a string around his neckLast week a man who had been studying for a social work degree at Sheffield University lost his appeal against the university’s decision to expel him for remarks he made on Facebook in a discussion about homosexuality. Felix Ngole, a Christian of Cameroonian origin, and his supporters claim that he stated the belief as found in the Bible that homosexuality is a sin; the entire wording of his comments is not given in the reports, but the Guardian quotes him as saying “the Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin” and “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”, which are certainly not abusive or threatening or even, as the university claimed, ‘derogatory’. Ngole is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, which has said that the ruling “will have a chilling effect on Christian students up and down the country who will now understand that their personal social media posts may be investigated for political correctness”.

The CLC has a history of supporting Christians who bring unlikely cases where their beliefs make it impossible, so they claim, to do their jobs. In some cases these lawsuits are groundless and vexatious, as in the case where a care worker demanded to have Sunday off, while the children she cared for did not get Sunday off their disability. They are also an Islamophobic organisation; their list of “issues” on their website includes Islam (and no other religion) and have links with Alan Craig who led the campaign to defeat the plans for the so-called mega mosque (actually the Abbey Mills Mosque) in east London ten years ago. As I have previously stated, I have some sympathy for the people sacked for being unwilling to perform new duties such as solemnising gay marriages which were not in the job description when they signed up, and which could in some cases be worked around, but care workers have always worked on the Sabbath for good reason, and the Muslims they campaign against are their potential allies.

The university justified his expulsion on the grounds that it had to consider his “fitness to practise” given that the degree was of a vocational nature. I would hazard a guess that many of those currently practising have views similar to his and studied before social media became popular, but other problematic views that could affect their relations with vulnerable service users, such as that disabled people (particularly those with even mild learning difficulties) are not fit to be parents or should not be supported when they need to be do not result in social workers losing their jobs, much less aspiring social workers being kicked off their degree courses; they are more likely in fact to lead to parents losing their children. Similarly with class prejudice, hard-set ideas about how certain types of people treat or bring up their children, uncritical deference towards authority (such as that of doctors, for example). Social workers cannot remove children without a court order, and no single social worker should be able to dominate the system such that their prejudices are decisive in how a child or family is treated (and if one can, the department is dysfunctional and there will be other problems).

The possibility that a gay teenage foster child may have conflict with their foster parents, for example, is only one of many eventualities that should be taken into account when assessing the suitability of social workers or foster carers; a diverse community needs to know that the local authority, their teachers, social workers and others with power to intervene in their lives represents and understands them, and if they restrict entry to those with only the most “up-to-date” views on matters like homosexuality or abortion, for example, large sections of the community are going to be frozen out. It is quite noticeable that a lot of the Christians championed by the Christian Legal Centre for “expressing their religious views” are black. So, if Felix Ngole’s “expression of his views” goes beyond what has been reported and includes aggressive proselytism or harassment, it’s only right that he not be considered for a role like that of a social worker, but if not, his expulsion was a quite unjustified retaliation for peacefully expressed views and I hope his appeal succeeds.

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