The rejection of a Christian NHS worker’s case that she was wrongfully disciplined for giving a religious book to a Muslim colleague is a “blow for freedom of expression”, her supporters said.
Victoria Wasteney, 39, was found guilty by her employer in 2014 of “harassing and bullying” a work colleague for giving her a book about a Muslim woman’s encounter with Christianity, praying with her and asking her to church.
She was suspended for nine months and East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT) found her guilty of “blurring professional boundaries” and subjecting her junior colleague to “improper pressure and unwanted conduct”.
Ms Wasteney, a senior occupational therapist, challenged the decision at an employment tribunal last year, but it ruled the trust had not discriminated against her, and an appeal against that tribunal’s finding was rejected.
Speaking after the hearing Ms Wasteney, from Epping, Essex, denied having tried to convert the woman to Christianity or “groom” her. “Under no circumstances was it ever my intention to pressurise anyone but I certainly felt that I needed to be free to express my view in a respectful way to other people and I personally don’t feel that I ever crossed that boundary,” she said.
The Christian Legal Centre, which supported her, said her treatment raised “serious concerns” that political correctness in the NHS is stifling discussion of faith, and called for a “radical review of the balance of rights” in the UK which are “skewed to favour religions and ideologies other than Christianity”.
Chief executive Andrea Williams described the judgment as “sad”, “disappointing” and a “blow for freedom”, saying the courts had avoided the opportunity to grapple with freedom of speech, religion and expression in the workplace.
Ms Wasteney, a born-again Christian, worked at the John Howard Centre in east London, a mental health unit, joining in 2007 as head of forensic occupational therapy.
She became friends with a new junior colleague in 2012, a Muslim, the pair sharing an interest in their faiths and campaigning against human trafficking.
In April 2013 Ms Wasteney offered her a book promoting conversion to Christianity, and the following month Ms Wasteney briefly prayed for her after she became upset at work, putting her hand on her knee while doing so after seeking her permission.
Ms Wasteney also invited her to church on several occasions, texting her in a friendly manner. But in June the woman complained and Ms Wasteney was suspended for nine months.
In her complaint the woman said she felt “groomed” by Ms Wasteney, who urged her to “invite Jesus to come into her spirit” after they discussed the woman’s health.
On one occasion, when she revealed she had Crohn’s disease, she said Ms Wasteney told her it did not exist because it was not in the Bible and that only Jesus could heal her.
A formal NHS disciplinary investigation found her guilty of three charges and she was eventually given a written warning for “harassing and bullying” her colleague.
The woman, who quit her job shortly after making the complaints, never gave any evidence about her allegations to the NHS or later to an employment tribunal, which found she had subjected a subordinate to “unwanted and unwelcome conduct”.
Rejecting her appeal that she had a right to freely express her religious beliefs under human rights laws, Her Honour Judge Eady QC said, “I am satisfied that the employment tribunal approached its task correctly and provided a proper and adequate explanation of its reasons.”
Afterwards, Ms Wasteney said, “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.”
Denying that she tried to groom the woman, she added, “I was engaging in normal behaviour as far as I was concerned … I wasn’t trying to convert this lady, I was engaging in open discourse about her faith and my faith.
“I really trust that this case will do what it needs to do and stimulate healthy discussion about freedom of speech.”
Ms Williams said they would explore further legal action, and hoped the case would bring “progress” towards greater freedom of religious expression at work. “People like Victoria and the tens of thousands like her in this country are great employees, they are great bosses, they have compassion and care for those that work around them, and we all need to be free to have opinions,” she said.
“Everyone comes (to work) with a belief system, but it’s the Christians like Victoria that we are seeing punished in the workplace and sadly an increasing climate of fear in the workplace.
“If we can expose this, hopefully the workplace will understand that people like Victoria shouldn’t be punished.”
A spokeswoman for ELFT said, “Our concerns have always been about the behaviour and actions of a senior manager employed by the trust and not about the faith or religion of any individual.”
Picture: Victoria Wasteney, 39, from Epping in Essex, outside the Employment Appeal Tribunal in central London, where she lost an appeal against being disciplined by her NHS employer. Credit: Dominic Harris/PA Wire.