Seyi Omooba was sacked from playing the lead role in the musical The Color Purple after some social media posts from half a decade earlier were criticised by other actors. In the furore that followed, both the theatre company that had employed her and her agent terminated their relationships with her. Omooba took both of them to an Employment Tribunal on the basis that she had been sacked because of her religious beliefs and therefore suffered direct discrimination.
Before I turn to the problems with the case Omooba had, let’s look at the positives from the judgement. The Tribunal were very clear that holding a Christian position on homosexuality, however offensive some may find it, was an aspect of the protected characteristic of religious belief. As the tribunal wrote in paragraph 93, “A pluralist society must respect belief, however unacceptable to many people. There may be limits, for example to incitement to violent action, or setting restrictions on other people leading their lives, but as expressed by the claimant, she was not advocating any more than that other Christians must express their beliefs."
This is really important. Yet again a court has ruled that holding a Christian belief around sexuality is not in and of itself permissible grounds to discriminate against the person holding that belief. The Tribunal said that if the theatre and her agent had sacked her simply for the content of the original social media post, or her beliefs today, that would have been discrimination, and that would have been wrong.
But the Tribunal found that the two respondents did not do that.
Rather, it found two areas that were good enough reason for Omooba’s contracts to be terminated. The first was that the views expressed by Omooba might very likely have a serious economic impact upon the theatre company and its ability to sell tickets. The second was that Omooba had herself later stated that she simply couldn’t play the part of a lesbian, so would therefore have ended up in breach of her agreement with the theatre anyway.
Omooba hadn’t read the script properly before she accepted the role and had given no indication before her part was publicised that she couldn’t play the part of a lesbian, so the theatre company argued that they had no knowledge of her “red lines” in this regard. Essentially Omooba was in what is technically called “prior repudiatry breach” – she wasn’t ever in a position where she could have fulfilled the terms of her contract and it was her negligence in not reading the script properly before signing that contract (as requested) that caused that problem to emerge later on.
What can we learn from this?
First, as Christians we can’t pick and choose which bits of morality we do or don’t want to accept when dealing with non-Christians. In her evidence, Omooba claimed that she and other Christian actors would happily play the role of murderers, prostitutes or politicians they disagreed with. Indeed, this is the very nature of acting – fairly representing a character, any character, to an audience. So why if Omooba was happy to portray a murderer or adulterer, was she not happy to portray a lesbian (kisses and all)? Either Christian actors portray sinners and sin on stage, or they do not. Picking and choosing which sins you do or don’t want to portray gives at the very least the impression that you are ultimately making a decision in this area not on robust theological grounds but rather on the basis of the “ick factor”. Certainly in this case it can’t be that homosexual acts are morally worse than adultery or murder.
The second reflection for us is that we need to recognise honestly and humbly that we live in a non-Christian western world. Direct discrimination and persecution is one thing, but at the end of the day this was a sad story of a Christian actor who didn’t do her homework, didn’t read the script like she was asked and ended up taking a role in a play that she herself admitted she could never perform. To then take the theatre company to an employment tribunal for discrimination is egregious. It lacks wisdom and self-reflection and just perpetuates the narrative of Christians wanting to impose their beliefs on others.
As Christians we’re called to the path of the cross, not the sword. Yes, where there is genuine persecution let’s stand up and demand justice (whether it is for us or for others), but where there is simply wrong choices and bad decisions, to then sue others in a court of law is a mistake. Omooba was ultimately the architect of her own storm, even before a five year old Facebook post came into play, and unfortunately all she has done is cost donors to the Christian organisation who supported her (Christian Concern) unnecessary expenses.
Revd Peter Ould is a Church of England priest, a consultant statistician and a Primary School Governor. He has been writing and broadcasting on issues of Christianity, sex and gender for over two decades. He writes here in his personal capacity.
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