Here we have one of those fascinating and incredibly tricky cases where different human rights seem to be in conflict. Whatever the outcome of the case, it will make some people very angry.
The case concerns actress Seyi Omooba, who was cast in a prominent role in The Color Purple, to be staged at the Curve theatre in Leicester and at the Birimingham Hippodrome. However, a Facebook post she published in 2014 came to light, in which she said “i do not believe homosexuality is right” and posted Bible verses to support her view:
Some Christians have completely misconceived the issue of Homosexuality, they have begun to twist the word of God. It is clearly evident in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 what the bible says on this matter. I do not believe you can be born gay, and i do not believe homosexuality is right, though the law of this land has made it legal doesn’t mean its right. I do believe that everyone sins and falls into temptation but its by the asking of forgiveness, repentance and the grace of God that we overcome and live how God ordained us too. which is that a man should leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Genesis 2:24. God loves everyone, just because he doesn’t agree with your decisions doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you. Christians we need to step up and love but also tell the truth of God’s word. I am tired of lukewarm Christianity, be inspired to stand up for what you believe and the truth #our God is three in one # God(father) #Jesus Christ(son) #Holy Spirit.
Actor Aaron Lee Lambert posted a screenshot of the post, and asked on Twitter whether, now she was playing an LGBT character in The Color Purple, whether she stood by her statement.
@Seyiomooba Do you still stand by this post? Or are you happy to remain a hypocrite? Seeing as you’ve now been announced to be playing an LGBTQ character, I think you owe your LGBTQ peers an explanation. Immediately. pic.twitter.com/GK2xbzZYgy
— Aaron Lee Lambert (@aleelambert) March 15, 2019
When the producers got wind of this, they asked Ms Omooba to retract the statement. She did not, and so the offer of the part in the show was rescinded. She is now suing the theatres for religious discrimination.
It will be fascinating to see how the Courts parse this case. It is multi-faceted, and so will provide endless fodder for radio phone-in shows, newspaper op-eds, and self-important bloggers to pick at. It is not likely to be the sort of affair that inspires mutual understanding. Instead, it will reinforce our pre-existing narratives and worldviews.
Free speech and employment rights
There is a free speech issue here. Many people will say that the free speech principle only applies to government action, not private interactions. But this is a narrow conception of freedom of expression. There is a wider ‘spirit of free speech’ which is engaged here — Ms Omooba is being punished for what she has said.
And the punishment is not just social opprobrium or even social media #cancel culture. She has lost a very specific job offer, and so the relationship between free speech and employment contracts come into play.
Does she have any employment rights? Can organisations sack you for something you write on social media? Can they sack you for something you wrote four years ago on social media? Many contracts will now have clauses relating to bringing the company into disrepute, and other terms of employment might include refraining from language (in the workplace, or online) which makes life difficult for colleagues.
The idea that an organisation should be able to part company with an employee who spouts racist or homophobic views seems reasonable. After all, the employer would have a duty to their other employees, who might be the targets of the prejudice. But who sets the limits on what views a person can hold? If its legitimate to sack someone for posting bigoted, discriminatory views, should we also be allowed to sack them for showing support for politicians like Donald Trump, who say racist things? Can we sack them for defending Jeremy Corbyn against charges of antisemitism?
Do employers set their own limits? And if so, could (say) Tim Martin, the pro-Brexit boss of Wetherspoons, sack someone for supporting Remain? Could he sack someone for not wearing a poppy?
Should employers overtly monitor your social media output?
Were her comments ‘dredged up’ or are they in plain sight?
The way in which this case has come to light is also worthy of comment.
The Daily Mail headline says that the post was ‘dredged up.’ It feels odd and off that a post that made five years ago (when Ms Omooba was only 20) should return to ‘haunt’ her now. If we are motivated by concern for her LGBT+ colleagues, then there is surely a moral difference between something buried in the archives from 2014, and something posted last week. Notwithstanding the fact that the message was posted on Facebook, it is not a conceptual stretch for Ms Omooba to consider that she has ‘kept her views to herself.’ In other contexts I have argued that what people post on their private Facebook walls should not be considered part of their professional life. Either way, its clear that the old public-private distinctions have broken down, but we knew that long before this case came along.
And why was Aaron Lee Lambert trawling Seyi Omooba’s Facebook archive? Do all actors get this kind of treatment? Or only the women? Or only the women of colour? Or had Ms Omooba made some enemies prior to her casting?
That last question is important. Ms Omooba is the daughter of a prominent Christian pastor. I note that Christian Concern are assisting her in her legal challenge. Perhaps she has a reputation in the industry for evangelising her homophobic Christian ideology, and in no way can be said to have ‘kept her views to herself.’
The role that religion plays in this is important too. Is Ms Omooba’s right to practice religion infringed here?
In debates such as these, the fact that someone has cited verses from the Bible seems to place them in a special category. Quoting Corinthians or Leviticus seems to shield the words from criticism and give them special protection — at least, in our own heads. Social conservatives frame the Ms Omooba’s dismissal as a war on religion, and newspapers such as the Daily Mail report it as such.
Lately, I’ve come to wonder whether religious texts should continue to receive any special protections. What, really, is the difference between writing “gay people should be killed” and “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:13)? Why should one version be worthy of dismissal (and possibly criminal charge for hate speech), while the other respected as a ‘devout’ belief?