Rev Keith Walters was employed as a caretaker at the Isle of Ely primary school. In June 2019 he tweeted a post reminding Christians that they should not attend or support any Pride events as they were contrary to the Christian faith and harmful to children. He did this outside of school hours and on his own personal account.
This tweet gained a lot of traction in the community and complaints were made, both formally and informally, including some from parents of children at the school.
This triggered the school’s complaints procedure. Rev Walters was issued with a letter stating he was to be investigated for misconduct or gross misconduct and making comments that “could be harmful for the reputation of the school”. He was not suspended while this was ongoing but did have some parent-facing duties removed from him pending the outcome of the investigation. The Tribunal recognised that this was a “reasonable decision to take in the circumstances”, adding that alternatives to suspension are good and that suspension should not be a knee-jerk reaction.
The Claimant was invited to attend a disciplinary hearing. He resigned the day before, stating that the school did not support freedom of speech and faith and he needed to leave to prevent him and his church from being silenced. During the hearing the head teacher stated that she “absolutely recognised and support your right to have personal opinions and religious opinions about things. The rights or wrongs of those opinions I don’t think is what’s in question. I think it’s whether it has broken the codes of conduct and the school policies.” He was given a final written warning for breaching the school’s policy on posting information that damaged the employer’s reputation and was “homophobic, harassing, discriminatory and offensive”. He appealed and it was not upheld.
His claims for unfair dismissal and direct discrimination were unsuccessful. He was investigated because of a formal complaint, not because of his religion. But his claim of indirect discrimination on grounds of religion or belief was upheld. This was because he tweeted on his personal account outwith working hours in his role as a Christian minister. The Judge added that care must be taken when trying to restrict employees’ freedom outside of work and only in the “clearest cases where the rights of others are being damaged should the school intervene”.
The tribunal also stated that there were “lesser options open to the school” other than giving a final written warning. They suggested that the school could have issued a statement to say the Claimant was allowed to have his religious beliefs but that his views did not represent the views of the school.
Employers need to be very careful when disciplining employees for posting on social media outside of working hours and on their personal accounts. As can be seen in this case there is a high bar for what will constitute damage to reputation of the employer. These kinds of cases are all very fact specific and there were some unusual features such as the Claimant being a practising minister. Employers need to make sure they have appropriate policies in place.
If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Natalia Milne.