A Christian NHS worker suspended for giving a religious book to a Muslim colleague has lost her appeal against a ruling that the decision to discipline her was lawful.
Victoria Wasteney, 39, was found guilty by her NHS employer in 2014 of “harassing and bullying” a work friend 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 given a written warning, even though the woman had been happy to discuss faith with her and never gave evidence about her allegations to the NHS.
Ms Wasteney, a senior occupational therapist, challenged the decision by East London NHS Foundation Trust at an employment tribunal last year, but it ruled that her employer had not discriminated against her.
A judge gave her the chance to appeal against that decision, saying it should consider whether the original ruling had correctly applied the European Convention on Human Rights’ strong protection of freedom of religion and expression.
But at a hearing in central London on Thursday, Her Honour Judge Eady QC dismissed the appeal.
Following the decision, Miss Wasteney, from Epping, Essex, 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.
“If someone sends you friendly text messages, how is one to know that they are offended? I had no idea that I was upsetting her.”
Ms Wasteney worked at the John Howard Centre in east London, a mental health unit, joining in 2007 as head of forensic 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, I Dared To Call Him Father, which promotes conversion to Christianity. The woman accepted it, though later threw it away.
The following month, after the woman went to Ms Wasteney for help after becoming upset at work, she briefly prayed for her, 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.
A formal disciplinary investigation made eight allegations of misconduct and she was later found guilty of three charges, and 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 the employment tribunal.
Speaking outside the Employment Appeal Tribunal after the judgment, Ms Wasteney denied having ever tried to pressurise the woman, try to convert her to Christianity or “groom” her.
She said: “I was asked about whether I had groomed this person and that is such a strong word and I find it difficult to think about the kind of persona that has been placed upon me.
“I really trust that this case will do what it needs to do and stimulate healthy discussion about freedom of speech.
“I have also been asked a lot about whether I was trying to convert this person. Of course, in the gospel of Jesus Christ people have an option to choose the message of the gospel and that there’s good news.
“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.”
The Christian Legal Centre, which supported Ms Wasteney, said her treatment raised “serious concerns” that political correctness in the NHS is stifling discussion of faith.
Chief executive Andrew 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.
She said: “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.
“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.”
She added: “Victoria is a strong woman and yet even she has suffered as a result of this. She is bouncing back but she has had a darker period, and that is because even the strongest will find this kind of situation daunting.”
Ms Williams said they now planned to explore further legal action, both in the UK and Europe, and said she hoped the case would bring progress towards greater freedom of religious expression at work.
She said: “If we can expose this, hopefully the workplace will understand that people like Victoria shouldn’t be punished.”