Was this Christian teacher really sacked for telling a lesbian pupil 'God loves you'?

A Christian teacher was said to have been dismissed after telling a lesbian pupil 'God loves you' in a case that appears to play to all the fears conservative Christians have about the marginalisation of the faith.

The Bristol Employment Tribunal upheld an T2 Apprenticeship Academy's decision to dismiss Svetlana Powell, a Christian teacher with 17 years experience, for 'gross misconduct'.

But were the headlines accurate?  

Christian ConcernSvetlana Powell is considering appealing the tribunal's ruling.

According to the judgment released last week there is rather more to this case, in which Powell was backed by the Christian Legal Centre.

On July 25, 2016 Elizabeth Barker, the former Academy manager, was summoned to a classroom to discover a 'shouting match' between one pupil and Powell, who had been hired two months earlier and was on probation.

The pupils felt 'brainwashed' and said 'they have been preached at all day about Christianity' in maths and English classes, Barker's report of the incident read. 

One pupil, known only as K, was told 'he was a bad Christian for believing in homosexuality'.

Another pupil, known as R, who is openly gay, was told she 'will be going to hell if she does not repent her sins', the pupils told Barker afterwards in private. Powell denied ever talking about hell but pupils understood her 'indirectly to have said or agreed that homosexuals would go to Hell if they did not repent'. 

Another pupil was forced to 'repeat the prayer of repentance before he was allowed to leave his 1:1 sessions with her', the pupils said.

Powell said 'her opinions are always right because she is the teacher' and 'compared homosexuality to murder', they told Barker.

When these allegations were put to Powell, Barker's notes from the meeting say that 'the general feeling from Svetlana was that [K] had deliberately set out cause trouble.' Barker went on: 'I agreed that whilst this MAY have been the case, as a professional teacher you should never allow yourself to be drawn into that. Svetlana agreed.'

In laying out the decision employment judge Maxwell said: 'The central issue is why did Ms Preston (the human resources officer at the academy) decide to dismiss the claimant [Svetlana Powell] and did this include, to any material extent, the claimant's religious belief.'

The ruling goes on to make clear Ms Powell was dismissed because she 'allowed the situation to escalate and lost control of the class'. She 'allowed herself to be drawn into a conversation whereby she expressed her personal religious views' and 'these views, in particular that on homosexuality, caused the learners, especially R, to become upset'. 

It concludes: 'The reason for the claimant's dismissal did not include her religion or belief and she was not treated less favourably on that ground.' 

Pavel Stroilov, lawyer for the CLC, argued Powell's treatment was in 'stark contrast' to Andrew Spargo, an 'outspoken left-wing atheist' teacher who was treated more leniently in another disciplinary case. However Judge Maxwell rejected the comparison because 'Mr Spargo did not lose control of a class in the way the claimant [Powell] did, with a heated discussion spilling over into an altercation which required and attracted immediate intervention by the respondent's management.'

She added that 'whilst Mr Spargo initially asserted that he was obliged to express his views, fairly soon thereafter he agreed to "leave them at the door",' whereas Powell insisted: 'I think that it is appropriate for me to share Christian views.' 

Moreover the fact her dismissal was down to her inability to control the classroom rather than her faith was made clear to Powell when the decision was first made.

'No, this isn't about religion, not any religion,' Ms Powell was told by Ms Preston. 'Voices were raised in your class, people walked out because they were uncomfortable, asked to drop it and still continued. You should have taken control and stopped the conversation. It escalated out of control.' 

The Christian Legal Centre (CLC) and Powell are considering appealing the verdict. 

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