Paved with good intentions

Headline, Daily Express, 19th January 2015: “’I was sacked for praying for a troubled Muslim’ says Christian nurse”

This case was in the news again this week, when an Employment Tribunal appeal was rejected. Almost everything in the Express headline last year was incorrect, and much of this week’s coverage was misleading. Our news outlet of record is the BBC and here is their report. It looks bad. A senior Occupational Therapist (OT) working in a medium secure unit (forensic psychiatry) in East London was suspended for having a conversation about Christianity with a Muslim colleague.

Compare and contrast the BBC report with the National Secular Society’s account, which is based on court documents in the case (you can read the Employment Tribunal and Appeal judgements). The story is actually about violations of professional boundaries. It is not really about religion at all.

The senior OT in question evidently belongs to an evangelical Pentecostalist group that is active in London. This group has been accused of over-enthusiasm to the point of being invasive or even a bit cult-like. If the judges are to be believed, she obtained permission from her employer for the group to organise religious activities within the medium secure unit where she worked, on condition that activities were ecumenical in nature. This did not go entirely smoothly and there were complaints. In particular, it was alleged that the senior OT was interacting with a patient in an inappropriate way, accompanying the patient to religious services when she had no clinical involvement. There was an evident conflict of interest between her professional responsibilities and her religious faith. So her manager spoke to her about it and followed that up with an email.

The disputed disciplinary action concerned a Muslim probationer OT who worked her post-qualification year under the direct management of the senior OT. The probationer OT was in a position of vulnerability with regard to the senior OT from a personal and professional point of view. She complained that she was subjected to an oppressive campaign to get her to convert to Christianity. The senior OT was disciplined for an abuse of power, not for expressing her religious faith. She was not dismissed. She was given a warning.

The senior OT took the case to an Employment Tribunal, complaining of religious discrimination. She was supported by the Christian Legal Centre/Christian Concern, whose CEO is Andrea Williams. Here is their account of the case.

The senior OT complained:

What the Court clearly failed to do was to say how, in today’s politically correct world, any Christian can even enter into a conversation with a fellow employee on the subject of religion and not, potentially, later end up in an Employment Tribunal.

Andrea Williams commented:

Week by week Christians are marginalised, threatened, side lined, sacked and disciplined simply for holding normal conversations about their faith which is held dear to them.

“Normal conversation” does not sit very well with the original complaint made by the junior OT, which describes protracted and sometimes bizarre harassment on religious themes, lasting for a year.

I met Andrea Williams once, in a debate about ‘Intolerant Secularisation’ at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Here is a summary of my contribution. Ms Williams was entirely pleasant, and said that she agreed with a lot of what I had said. I could not help but feel that she had not been listening very carefully. She has been involved in a whole series of cases of alleged discrimination against fundamentalist Christians. She is very skilful in getting her persecution narrative into the national press and broadcast media. I know that much of what we read is churnalism, but you would have thought that someone at the BBC would have smelt a rat. “I mentioned Jesus over lunch and the next thing I got was my P45” is not a convincing narrative, but it keeps coming round. I managed to dig out the facts in this case by Googling for less than fifteen minutes.

The majority of health professionals recognise the need to maintain proper professional boundaries, no matter what their personal religious or political beliefs might be. I have worked closely with Christian mental health professionals, some of whom are born-again. They do not behave like the senior OT apparently did in this case, and they remain respected colleagues.

Many NHS mental health organisations across the UK now encourage, or even insist on, the integration of spiritual care into psychiatric treatment. I have been worried that this invites violations of professional boundaries for years. Many mental health professionals with a religious faith share my concerns. I have argued that although those advocating closer integration of treatment and religion are usually ecumenical and well-intentioned, hard line proselytisers can follow in their wake. No one can really be surprised that the more extreme type of evangelical Christian evangelises when they are given the opportunity. It is extremely unattractive to anyone who does not share their zeal, but it is their raison d’etre.

Serious boundary violations almost invariably start with a small slip that escalates into major abuse. What I cannot understand is why the managers of a medium secure unit, which treats some of the most vulnerable people with mental illness, allowed a group like this to organise activities on their premises at the instigation of a member of staff. I can see how difficult it would be to distinguish between a local Baptist church and this group, and if you invite one religious group, presumably its hard not to invite all of them, up to and including the Church of Scientology. Far better that mental health providers invite no religious groups. There is an important role for priests, imams and the equivalent, who offer religious support to individual patients at their own request, working alongside, but separately from, mental health teams. That provides a clear boundary, and protects patients and staff alike, whatever their religious faith.

In my opinion, the critical step in the boundary violation was this earlier decision by the Trust. That mistake was in turn facilitated by boundary-blurring policies about religion and mental health professionals. As I said in my last blog on religion, I believe in tolerance. This case shows how offering privileges to religious groups places vulnerable patients and staff at risk, especially those of a minority faith. ‘Intolerant secularism’ is indeed an oxymoron.