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Christian teacher dismissed and referred to counter-terrorism watchdog after saying "God loves you" to a lesbian student

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An Employment Tribunal has dismissed the discrimination claim by a Christian teacher dismissed by a government-funded pre-apprenticeship academy for answering students’ questions about her beliefs.

Svetlana Powell, a teacher of some 17 years’ experience, was dismissed by the T2 Apprenticeship Academy in Bristol in July 2016 after being asked by students about her views on homosexuality. She was also reported as a “radicalisation threat” to the government’s anti-terrorist watchdog, Prevent.

In reply to a question by a 17-year-old student, Mrs Powell said that her personal belief was that homosexuality was against God’s will, but that He loved every person, regardless of what they did, or who they were.

When told that one of the students identified as a lesbian, Mrs Powell in conviction of God’s care and love for every person, turned to her and said: “God loves you”. Two days later, the Academy’s HR Officer, Stacy Preston, told Mrs Powell that she was fired for “gross misconduct” with immediate effect.

The Academy’s Chief Safeguarding Officer, Sian Prigg, told the Tribunal that after a group of students complained that they were “brainwashed and preached to”, she decided to contact the local coordinator for Prevent - the government’s ‘counter-terrorism’ strategy group – to report the incident. Mrs Powell said she did not know of being reported as a “radicalisation threat” until she brought a legal claim against the Academy and read Mrs Prigg’s witness statement for the Tribunal.

However, Employment Judge Maxwell has ruled that the Academy did not discriminate against Mrs. Powell because of her religious beliefs.

Fired with immediate effect

Mrs Powell told the Tribunal she had been a teacher for 17 years at a Bristol College with an exemplary record, before joining T2 Academy in May 2016 as a tutor. T2 is a pre-apprenticeship academy run by a private firm, Marr Corporation, on rolling contracts from the government.

Returning to work from a one-week holiday on 25 July, Mrs Powell was assigned to teach a class for 2 days, on 25 & 26 July 2016, in the absence of a fellow tutor. She was provided with a lesson plan, including a discussion on employability, or another topic which she considered to be appropriate.

Powell had previously taught one of the students in the class, and in a small group, he had told her that he was a Christian, and she had told him that she was too.

On the morning in question, the Christian student was distracting fellow pupils, and so Mrs. Powell asked him to stop and to focus on his work.

He was given a verbal warning by the teacher, saying that if he didn’t produce a certain amount of work after the lunch break, she would have to move him away from the others, so that he could concentrate on his work and not distract other learners.

After the lunch break, the student continued talking while producing minimum work, so was asked to move away to the opposite end of the classroom. The student objected, and then started to be argumentative about the tutor’s faith, asking her first a question about her personal beliefs on evolution.

Other students then started to ask the tutor’s personal views on other faith issues, and as the class was engaging with the conversation, the tutor decided to use this as the ‘discussion topic’ for the session and introduced it as such.

“I decided to use the students’ interest in the subject and to have a discussion to accommodate the activities included in the lesson plan,” Mrs Powell said. “I considered the topic appropriate, as the discussion about Christian views would contribute in raising cultural issues of our day and awareness of the religion of this country.”

The student who had originally been warned about his behaviour then asked the tutor for her personal views on homosexuality. She replied by saying that as a Christian, she “personally” believed the Bible says that homosexual activity was against God’s will, but that God still loves every person regardless of what they did, or who they were.

The same student then said that another student in the group was a lesbian, to which the tutor replied that God loved her. The tutor was then asked whether the lesbian student would “go to hell”, to which the tutor replied with the historic Christian view that for everyone who repents (turns to God), God has provided a way of salvation to us through His son, Jesus Christ. The tutor said nothing about ‘hell’.

The discussion became very heated with the original student who had been disciplined talking over others. At break, that student, and four others left the classroom and then went to talk to the Academy manager, Liz Barker.

As a result of this, Svetlana Powell was then called into another room by Ms Barker, told that the students had made a complaint, and that she would take it further and would be contacting Human Resources. When Mrs Powell returned to work the next day, she was told she had been suspended, and should await news from her employer, via email.

Mrs Powell was invited to a disciplinary hearing the next day at 11am, and did not have time to obtain legal representation. At the Hearing on 27 July, she was grilled about her Christian faith and what she had expressed about it in her discussion with students.

After one hour, Mrs Powell was called back into the room and told her contract was being terminated on the basis that she could not control the class, and that her comments were offensive to some students. She was told to leave the Academy immediately, and that she would not be allowed to appeal her dismissal.

Loss of earnings

Mrs Powell, supported by Christian Legal Centre (CLC), sued Marr Corporation in Bristol Employment Tribunal for loss of earnings.
 
CLC lawyer, Pavel Stroilov, told the court that Marr Corporation discriminated against Mrs Powell because of her Christian beliefs. He argued that the school’s treatment of Mrs Powell is “in stark contrast” to dealing with students’ complaints against another teacher, Andrew Spargo, whom he described as an “outspoken left-wing atheist”.
 
When questioning one of Marr Corporation’s witnesses, Liz Barker, Mr Stroilov referred to an e-mail where she reported students’ complaints that Mr Spargo spent most of his time in class “preaching to them on the daily basis about how terrible England is and how many innocent people the government has killed, as well as why Jesus never existed”. On one occasion, Mr Spargo allegedly shocked the students by showing them a sketch of a naked woman with her legs open and vagina showing. On another, he allegedly twice told a student to “get the f*** out of my classroom”.

Anti-Christian discrimination

Following a one-day trial, the Tribunal gave its judgment on 2 February.

The judgment disagreed with the comparison between Mrs Powell and Mr Spargo, finding that Mrs Powell was dismissed “because she allowed herself to be drawn into a discussion where she expressed personal religious views… allowed it to escalate and get out of control,” the Judge said. “She was not dismissed, to any material extent, for her Christian religion or beliefs”.

Mrs Powell and the Christian Legal Centre are considering appeal.

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