U.K. Man Wins Case Over Anti-Gay Marriage Facebook Comment

A British man whose Facebook comments against same-sex marriage led to a demotion and 40 percent pay cut won a breach-of-contract lawsuit against his employer.

The online comments by Adrian Smith, a housing manager who says he opposes gay marriage for religious reasons, didn’t amount to misconduct under his contract with Trafford Housing Trust, Judge Michael Briggs said today in London.

“Britain is a free country where people have freedom of speech, and I am pleased that the judge’s ruling underlines that important principle,” Smith, 55, said in an e-mailed statement. “Something has poisoned the atmosphere in Britain, where an honest man like me can be punished for making perfectly polite remarks.”

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he wants Britain to legalize same-sex marriage, putting him at odds with some members of his Conservative Party. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the party’s key strategist and Cameron’s closest ally, said Nov. 13 he would be putting gay marriage at the heart of the party’s plans.

Smith, identified in the judgment as an occasional lay-preacher with Christian Facebook friends in Africa, wrote in February 2011, after reading about Cameron’s plans, that gay marriage is “an equality too far.” Gay couples in Britain can currently get civil partnerships that confer most of the same rights as marriage.

Trafford accepts the judgment and has apologized to Smith, Matthew Gardiner, the trust’s chief executive officer, said in an e-mailed statement.

Clearer Guidance

After a Facebook friend who also works at Trafford challenged his viewpoint, he wrote that the Bible says marriage should be between a man and a woman and “the state shouldn’t impose its rules on places of faith and conscience.”

While an internal disciplinary investigation found Smith should be fired over the comment, he was demoted due to his “long record of loyal service,” according to the judgment. Briggs said Smith “was taken to task for doing nothing wrong.”

British lawmakers should provide clearer guidance on the relationship between employers and employees when it comes to personal comments on websites like Facebook and Twitter, said Sarah Henchoz, an employment lawyer at Allen & Overy LLP in London.

Social media has “grown and the law around it hasn’t grown as quickly,” Henchoz said. “Employers are regulating that themselves internally, but there’s not going to be consistency” and that leads to problems.

Damages Limited

While Smith’s pay was cut by 40 percent, his damages were limited to less than 100 pounds ($159) because the reduction had just started to be phased in. Smith could have won “substantial compensation” had the case been filed in the city’s employment tribunal system instead of the High Court, Briggs said.

Trafford, which employs over 300 people, is a private housing trust based in Manchester. It owns about 9,100 homes with rental revenue of about 31 million pounds per year.

“In this case, private views on a restricted site were rightly held to provide no basis for the draconian action of the housing trust,” Anthony Fincham, who leads the employment practice at CMS Cameron McKenna in London, said in an e-mail.

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