Jonathan Petre – Daily Mail October 23, 2011
A housing manager has been demoted, and his salary slashed, after he criticised a controversial new gay rights law.
Adrian Smith, a Christian, was found guilty of gross misconduct by his publicly funded housing association for saying that allowing gay weddings in churches was ‘an equality too far’.
He posted the comment in his own time, on his personal page on the Facebook website, which could not be read by the general public.
But after a disciplinary hearing, he was downgraded from his £35,000-a-year managerial job to a much less senior £21,000 post – and avoided the sack only because of his long service.
Mr Smith, 54, is now taking the association to court, arguing that his punishment was out of proportion and his right to free speech was ignored.
Friends said last night the father of two had been ‘shocked and distressed’ by his treatment and would now face financial hardship.
Campaigners attacked the housing association’s decision – the latest in a series of cases in which Christians have clashed with employers – as a ‘complete over-reaction’ by an organisation ‘drenched in political correctness’.
Mr Smith has worked for 18 years for Trafford Council and Trafford Housing Trust, which manages more than 9,000 homes in Sale, Greater Manchester.
But he now finds his career in tatters over a comment he wrote on his personal Facebook page one Sunday morning in response to a BBC story headlined ‘Gay church “marriages” get go-ahead’. The story referred to Government plans to lift the ban on homosexual couples holding civil partnerships in churches and other religious settings.
Mr Smith, whose Facebook profile identified him as working for the Trust as a housing manager, commented: ‘An equality too far.’
A few hours later, one of his Facebook friends, a work colleague whose identity is not known to The Mail on Sunday, posted: ‘Does this mean you don’t approve?’
The following evening after work, Mr Smith, who attends an evangelical church in Bolton, responded: ‘No, not really. 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 marriages 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.’
Lawyers for Mr Smith, whom friends describe as affable and non-confrontational, say his comments were merely expressing an ‘honest belief’ based on his Christian faith.
The proposed new law, on which the Government is consulting, will allow churches to open their doors to gay ceremonies if they wish, although the Church of England is refusing to participate.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, is among those to have criticised the plan for blurring the ‘clear distinction’ between homosexual partnerships and heterosexual marriage.
Mr Smith was disciplined after a second colleague complained to the Trust’s ‘equality and diversity lead’, Helen Malone.
A few days later, Mr Smith was summoned from his home to a meeting at the Trust’s headquarters in Sale, where he was told he was being suspended while the complaint was investigated.
He was warned that even though his Facebook page could be viewed only by registered friends, rather than by the general public, those readers included colleagues who had taken issue with his comments.
A shocked Mr Smith, who managed a team looking after local housing issues, immediately removed the reference to where he worked from the page.
The following month he was called to a disciplinary meeting before Mike Corfield, the Trust’s Assistant Director, Customers. Although Mr Smith was allowed to put his case, insiders described the meeting as ‘tense and fraught’.
According to legal documents lodged at Manchester County Court, Debbie Gorman, a ‘neighbourhood manager’ also at the meeting, said Mr Smith’s comment could cause offence.
She said she had interpreted it as saying ‘gay people are not as equal as people who are not gay’ and that the comment could be viewed as homophobic.
Mr Corfield said it was not the comment but its potential misinterpretation that was at issue, but still ruled that Mr Smith had committed a serious breach of discipline for which he could be dismissed.
But because of his loyal service, Mr Smith was instead demoted to money support adviser, handling rent collection. His pay was reduced to £21,396, phased in over a year, and he was given a final written warning.
Mr Smith has been advised he cannot speak to the press, but his solicitor Tom Ellis, of Aughton Ainsworth in Manchester, said: ‘Adrian was shocked and distressed to have been disciplined in this way. He never expected this to happen – it came completely out of the blue.
‘We sent a letter to the Trust asking that Adrian be given back his job but they refused to respond substantively. Adrian had no other choice but to seek justice through the court.
‘As a Christian, Adrian believes in the values of fairness, courtesy and respect for the opinions of others. Surely that leaves room for colleagues to discuss and even disagree about the topics of the day?
‘Conversations like that happen in offices and factories up and down the country every day.
‘When Adrian was told that he was being demoted with a 40 per cent cut in salary, he was stunned. It was all the more shocking because this was being done in the name of equality and diversity.
‘Nothing he said was offensive or abusive. His comments were calm, measured and reasonable.
‘Adrian has been treated disproportionately. Even those who disagree with his opinions will surely agree that he has been treated badly.’
An internal appeal upheld the original decision, except to rule that the reduction in Mr Smith’s pay would be phased in over two years.
Mr Smith’s lawyers say his comments fall far short of gross misconduct and they are claiming damages equivalent to his lost pay.
They also dispute that Mr Smith has broken the Trust’s code of conduct, which bans staff from making ‘derogatory’ comments about it.
They say the Trust has breached his contract because no attempt was made to resolve the row except through the disciplinary procedure.
Although Mr Smith was forced to undergo equality training in 2008 after a Muslim woman alleged he had not treated her fairly, his lawyers said this was irrelevant to the current case.
In 2007, he was praised by the Trust’s £145,000-a-year chief executive, Matthew Gardiner, for his charity work among poor women and children in Uganda.
Last year, the Trust, which employs 360 staff, was awarded a ‘quality mark’ from a gay support group for its work training staff in recognising homophobic hate crime.
But it has also angered a number of elderly residents by ordering them to remove garden benches and flower pots from outside their flats for health-and-safety reasons.
The organisation, which took over homes in 2005 from Trafford Council, receives most of its money in rent from tenants, but it can also apply for public money and last month won Government funds for an £8 million new project.
Mike Judge of the Christian Institute, which is backing the case, said: ‘We’re not talking about a Christian who shoves his opinions down the throats of his colleagues.
‘Mr Smith made completely tame and inoffensive remarks outside of work time on his personal Facebook page. His bosses should get some sense of perspective.
‘It is a complete over-reaction by a housing trust that is clearly drenched in political correctness.’
But Trust commercial director David Barrow said: ‘The Trust has an equal opportunities policy and Mr Smith’s comments on Facebook, where he identified himself as a Trust employee, went against this policy.
‘We expect employees at all levels to act respectfully. This applies in person and on social media.’
But a local Church of England vicar, Kate Burgess of St Matthew’s Church in Trafford, said: ‘I do feel that Christians are persecuted in this country, and this may be another example of that. I don’t know all the facts of this case, but it does seem like an over-reaction.