A Christian woman is taking her employer, an NHS Trust, to an employment tribunal after they disciplined her for misconduct because she prayed for a Muslim colleague who was unwell. She is accusing the trust of discrimination, and wants them to acknowledge that Christians face prejudice within certain parts of the public sector.
Victoria Wasteney, 37, was suspended for nine months on full pay by East London NHS Foundation Trust after Enya Nawaz, 25, a colleague at the John Howard Centre, a secure psychiatric hospital in London, accused her of bullying and harassment.
Miss Wasteney says she was careful about discussing religion at work because managers had warned that doing so could get her into trouble. However, the two had struck up a friendship when Nawaz, a newly qualified therapist from Birmingham, joined a team of 30 lead by Wasteney. They often discussed Christianity and Islam and the common ground between the two.
“Jesus is a central figure in both religions and we discussed this and other aspects quite openly and comfortably,” she told the Telegraph “It wasn’t a case of me trying to convert her, let alone force Christianity on her. How could you?”
On one occasion Miss Nawaz said that she was interested in the problem of human trafficking, and Miss Wasteney told her about work that her church was doing to help combat the issue, inviting her to visit the church to find out more about their work. She also lent her a DVD on the subject. In response to the invitation, Miss Nawaz emailed Miss Wasteney to say “I’m going home on Friday but hoping to be back for this.”
On another occasion, when Miss Nawaz was due to go into hospital for treatment Miss Wasteney gave her a book titled I Dared to Call Him Father, about the spiritual journey of a Muslim woman who converts to Christianity. She had been recommended it by a friend of Muslim origin, and thought Miss Nawaz may find it interesting.
However, things came to a head when Miss Nawaz came to Miss Wasteney in tears, telling her about ongoing health problems and personal problems at home. “She was very emotional and tearful and was talking to me about her fear of dying,” Miss Wasteney said. “I put my hand on her knee to comfort her – asking her if that was all right – and prayed with her, asking God to heal her. It was a natural and open thing for me to do and she didn’t object in any way.”
According to Miss Wasteney, Miss Nawaz came under increasing pressure from colleagues over the following weeks to bring a complaint of harassment on religious grounds against her friend. It also appears that others in Miss Nawaz’s community were unhappy with her friendship with a Christian woman.
In June 2013 Miss Wasteney was informed that Miss Nawaz had submitted an eight page report of allegations amounting to gross misconduct, including accusations of “laying hands” on her, of trying to convert her to Christianity, of asking her to pray and telling her she would not recover from her illness unless she prayed, and of giving her materials including a book and a DVD designed to convert her. Miss Nawaz resigned from the trust shortly before submitting the complaint, saying that she was not happy in her job.
Miss Wasteney told the Daily Mail: “I’m not anti-Muslim and I’m always very mindful to be sensitive to other people’s beliefs. We discussed our beliefs but I certainly didn’t tell her that my way was the only way. I don’t even believe it’s possible to force someone to convert.”
In February last year a disciplinary hearing dismissed some of the claims, including the laying on of hands, but upheld three charges of misconduct for praying with her friend and colleague, for giving her the book, and for inviting her to church events. Miss Wasteney was forced to accept a written warning, to remain on her record for twelve months, and a range of conditions designed to prevent her discussing her faith with colleagues.
She returned to her old position in March but says that colleagues were encouraged to consider her a “religious nutcase”. Unable to continue in her role, she soon moved to another position within the trust’s head office.
In documents submitted to the East London Employment Tribunal in advance of her case she says: “My professional career has been jeopardised, my reputation damaged, relations with colleagues ruined and I was subjected to an ordeal of persecution dressed as ‘disciplinary action’ for an extraordinarily long time. I was discriminated against because of my faith.”
Today, Miss Wasteney launched a legal challenge against the trust, accusing it of infringing her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. “The way it was all handled left me looking like a religious nutcase and I would like an acknowledgement that there is a negative attitude towards Christianity in some areas of the public sector,” she said.
“It’s ridiculous that people now feel they cannot openly discuss religion or their own spirituality. Do we want to reach the point where people are scared to invite colleagues and work friends to events like their children’s Christening or a wedding for fear of offending?
“It’s a dangerous society where diversity isn’t embraced and we can’t talk about both each other’s differences and our similarities. That is how things like homophobia develop. We have to respect each other, but it’s not healthy to have subjects that are a no-go area.”
Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre which is supporting Miss Wasteney by providing her with a leading human rights barrister, said: “The NHS is increasingly dominated by a suffocating liberal agenda that chooses to bend over backwards to accommodate certain beliefs but punishes the Christian.
“The way in which Victoria was treated highlights the extraordinary anxiety we now feel over causing any offence to Muslims. This creates a climate of fear and intimidation that keeps people from speaking about what they believe.”
She added: “There is a huge and increasing pressure on Christians to hide their identity and not make their views known for fear of being punished or losing their jobs.”