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Christian actress loses religious discrimination case

A Christian actress in the U.K. has lost her religious discrimination case in which she alleged that she was wrongfully terminated from a musical production because of faith-informed opinions on homosexuality she had expressed on social media as a teenager.

Seyi Omooba was cast to portray Celie in a 2019 theatre production of “The Color Purple,” a leading role that is seen by some as a lesbian character.

She was fired from the production after “Hamilton” actor Aaron Lee Lambert publicly released screenshots of a 2014 Facebook post in which she wrote:

“I do not believe you can be born gay, and I do not believe homosexuality is right,” adding, “Christians, we need to step up and love but also tell the truth of God’s word. I am tired of lukewarm Christianity,” The Telegraph reports.

Lambert put Omooba on the spot by publicly asking her if she still held to her Christian beliefs since she would be playing the character Celie, which he interpreted as being a lesbian.

On Wednesday, the Central London employment tribunal found that the theatre removed her from the play not because of her religious views but because of the potential that the theater and production would be negatively impacted by her views.

At the tribunal in which Omooba filed claims against talent agency Global Artists and Leicester’s Curve Theatre, Chris Stafford, Curve’s chief executive, argued that Omooba’s involvement in the production would have led to “boycotts and protests,” The Telegraph added.

Omooba filed a lawsuit against the Leicester Theatre Trust and her former agents with Global Artists for $179.391 (£128,000) in damages for lost earnings, future losses, injury to feelings, and reputational damage.

She reduced the compensation amount to $100,000 (£71,400) ahead of the last day of the hearing.

However, the tribunal rejected her claims of religious discrimination, harassment and breach of contract and awarded her nothing.

The tribunal panel said in their ruling that Omooba was fired from the production due to

“the effect of the adverse publicity from (the post’s) retweet, without modification or explanation, on the cohesion of the cast, the audience’s reception, the reputation of the producers and ‘the good standing and commercial success’ of the production.”

They added that “theatre bosses became concerned at the ‘speed and savagery’ of the reaction,” according to the U.K. Times. And “found that the theatre’s decision was a result of the backlash and the probable consequences.”

The Christian Legal Centre, which represented the actress, argued that those adjudicating the tribunal misunderstood what Omooba meant with her words and that its decision amounted to “an attack on Jesus Christ.”

“It should really concern Christians everywhere, that someone who really does believe in marriage, and speaks of it and is vocal about it, can have their words played back against them, their position, twisted, as it was in court.

The kind of stuff that we’re hearing in the media, and even in the judgments, simply doesn’t play out according to the truth, and according to what Seyi was seeking to communicate,” said Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, in an interview with Premier News.

“It’s actually an attack on Jesus Christ, who’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It’s an attack on his truth, it’s an attack on his beautiful pattern for society.”

Omooba had previously said she would not be comfortable portraying a gay character or perform in a sexually explicit manner, but she did not interpret Celie as being a lesbian.

“The Color Purple” is set in the 1930s deep south of the United States and the role of Celie is seen by some as a lesbian character because in the course of the story she develops an intimate relationship with a blues singer named Shug Avery.

During the hearing, Tom Coghlin QC, who represented Leicester Theatre Trust, said the musical is different from the film version of the story and that the actress

“didn’t check with the responders or director whether Celie would be interpreted in the usually understood way, which was as a gay character.”

By contrast, Omooba’s representative insisted that it was never made clear that she was expected to portray the character as a lesbian.

“In the film the lesbian theme is not present at all, there is one kiss between the female characters which can be interpreted in all sorts of ways,” said Pavel Stroilov, Omooba’s representative, at the time. 

The employment panel also noted that Omooba: “… had taken part in a similar production, she had the script, and knowing that a lesbian relationship was at least one interpretation, she should have considered much earlier whether a red line was to be crossed.”

In a joint statement in response to the ruling, Stafford of Leicester’s Curve Theatre and artistic director Nikolai Foster said:

“Seyi Omooba accepted a lesbian part in our production of ‘The Color Purple’ knowing full well she would refuse to play this iconic gay role as homosexual.

We believe the case had no merit from the outset, and should never have been brought to the tribunal.

“Unfortunately, we consider that Curve has been subject to a carefully orchestrated campaign from Seyi Omooba and Christian Concern, who have used the tribunal process — and our theatre — as an opportunity to further their case in what they describe as exposing ‘the mechanisms of censorship at the heart of the theatre industry, and how any dissenting views against LGBT ideology, especially Christian beliefs, are currently incompatible with a theatrical career.’ We know this is not true; theatre is one of the most inclusive, joyous and diverse industries and we celebrate this across all of our work at Curve.”

They added:

“We now look forward to drawing a line under this painful chapter and focusing our energies on how we rebuild our theatre after the pandemic.”

Written by Victor Ekong

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