An actress, billed to play a lesbian character, was not subjected to discrimination or harassment by either her agent or the theatre she was working for when she was dismissed, a tribunal has found.
The London Central Remote Hearing ruled that Leicester Theatre Trust was making a business decision when it terminated its contract with Seyi Omooba after it came to light that she had previously posted on her public Facebook page that she did “not believe homosexuality is right”.
The tribunal held that the theatre’s chief executive, Chris Stafford, had not discriminated against her, but “made a commercial decision” without any personal view informing it.
- Worker unfairly dismissed for complaining about boss on Facebook, tribunal rules
- What does the BBC’s social media crackdown mean for other employers?
- LGBT+ employees more likely to experience harassment at work, CIPD report finds
Similarly, her claim for harassment failed. “Stafford did not have the purpose of violating the claimant’s dignity or creating an intimidating or humiliating environment for her. His purpose was to save the production,” the tribunal ruled.
In March 2019, it was announced that Omooba would be playing protagonist Celie in a theatre production of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple at the Curve Theatre Leicester and Birmingham Hippodrome. In the story, Celie falls in love and has a relationship with another female character called Shug.
However, on 14 March, soon after the announcement, a publicly viewable Facebook post, made by Omooba in 2014, started circulating widely on Twitter. In the post, Omooba said: “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 it's right. I do believe that [sic].”
Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter
The post came to the attention of Stafford, who contacted Omooba’s agent, Bobbie Chatt, who worked for Michael Garret Associates, and asked whether the actress had changed her views since the post was made. He was told she hadn’t. Stafford then asked for a written statement from Omooba on her stance.
In her statement, Omooba said: “The law protects my freedom of expression as well as freedom of thought, conscience and religion. With regard to the role of Celie, I will not disregard that Celie falls in love with Shug or that Celie believes in God and is black. There is so much to Celie. The role of an actor is to play characters different from myself. As for the personal faith I will stand firm.”
On 17 March she was told by Chatt that Stafford wanted confirmation that the statement “remains your final position on the matter”, which she confirmed.
Subsequent discussions by Stafford with the cast and crew, some of whom were gay, revealed internal dissension. He also feared the issue could lead to boycotts, audience booing and demands for ticket refunds.
Therefore, on 21 March, Stafford sent Chatt a letter for Omooba terminating her engagement, and a copy of the public statement the theatre was going to release later. She was told she would still be paid the full contract sum.
On 24 March Michael Garratt also emailed Omooba stating their agreement was being terminated as the relationship was “beyond repair” because she had not retracted the original Facebook post. As a result she was now unmarketable and her continued association could damage the agency’s “commercial viability”.
Omooba did not accept the full contract sum offered by Leicester Theatre, and brought a tribunal claim against both the theatre and former agency Michael Garratt on the grounds her career had been damaged because of her religious beliefs.
Both claims were dismissed. Her claim that Michael Garret had breached her contract was also dismissed.
Responding to the ruling, Alexandra Carn, employment partner at Keystone Law, said it was a “timely reminder of the pitfalls of social media”, adding that even though the situation arose because of the Facebook post, the contract was ultimately terminated because of the dysfunctional situation that stemmed from it.
She said: “Employers should remember that every case is fact specific and there are wide-ranging protections under the Equality Act 2010.”
In a joint statement, Stafford and Nikolai Foster, artistic director, said: “We are pleased Seyi Omooba’s claims against Curve have been rejected by an employment tribunal […] We believe the case had no merit from the outset and should never have been brought to the tribunal.”
The Christian Legal Centre, which legally represented Omooba, has been contacted for comment.