Jeremy Sleath had worked for West Midlands Trains for 17 years. He was a Senior Conductor who had served his employer faithfully and admirably. He was sacked in September 2020, at the end of the national Covid-19 lockdown, for writing on his personal Facebook account: “Thank F*** our pubs open up today. We cannot let our way of life become like some sort of Muslim alcohol-free caliphate just to beat Covid19.”
There was a time when one might have sacked for using the F-word in public, but Jeremy Sleath has been sacked for using a simile. He enjoys his pub and likes his beer, you see, and found the interminable Covid lockdown to be like a “Muslim alcohol-free caliphate”.
You can quibble over the tautology if you wish: a caliphate is Islamic, so he didn’t need to say ‘Muslim’; and yes, he could have said, “We cannot let our way of life become like some sort of Methodist alcohol-free evangelical conference”, but he didn’t: he referred to an “alcohol-free caliphate”, and so he was sacked.
After 17 years of loyal service.
You can quibble, too, over the juxtaposition of ‘alcohol-free’ with ‘caliphate’, which is also slightly theologically tautologous, since alcohol is haram in Islam, and therefore a caliphate is necessarily going to be alcohol-free. But Jeremy Sleath was explaining to his fellow dhimi Facebook friends who may not be versed in Islamic jurisprudence that he doesn’t want to live in a caliphate because there is no beer, no gin, no whisky and no wine. That is all he said: he doesn’t want to live in a caliphate under a prohibitive Islamic polity.
Neither, incidentally, do millions of women (and quite a few men) in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or Iran. Or, indeed, any country where the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ is attempting to usher in their ‘robust’ theocratic model of a caliphate, where not being able to pop down the pub for a beer is a minor inconvenience compared to being summarily beheaded.
But Jeremy Sleath didn’t promulgate on Facebook a caricature caliphate of torture or fanatical violence or any of the other distortions which “have nothing to do with Islam”: he referred to an alcohol-free caliphate, which is a prohibition that any normal Muslim would readily acknowledge and accept.
Would he have been sacked if he’d referred to a Muslim minority-persecuting caliphate, or a Muslim juvenile-executing caliphate, or a Muslim women-oppressing caliphate, or a Muslim child-raping caliphate, or a Muslim terrorist-sponsoring caliphate?
All of this extremism may be observed in those who have attempted to establish a caliphate from time to time throughout history: extremism and despotic zealotry is what caliphs tend to bring. Of course, a few also brought mercy and compassion, and even introduced elements of consultation and consent, but not for all, and certainly not for atheists, which is Jeremy Sleath’s chosen path. He also explained: “I wouldn’t want UK to become any sort of religious or theocratic state, whether Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Chinese politburo, or even Christian. I wouldn’t even want an atheist state, my faith, if it involved banning other beliefs!”
So Jeremy Sleath would appear to be a remarkably ecumenical and tolerant sort of atheist. He’s perceptive, too, observing: “We do live in a Church of England [state] but it doesn’t have an impact apart from Sunday working hours.”
But what is perhaps most shocking about this saga is that Jeremy Sleath was sacked by West Midlands Trains because one anonymous fellow employee complained about his Facebook comment. The motivation of the complainant is not known, but it is unlikely to have been made by an evangelical Methodist. West Midlands Trains followed their internal disciplinary procedure, but the judgment of this kangaroo Spanish inquisition was foregone – rather like justice might be in a Muslim alcohol-free caliphate.
And now he is taking his former employer to an Employment Tribunal, suing for unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of non-religious belief. In a preliminary hearing, the Judge stated:
I found him to be very open and talkative, polite and serious about his beliefs. I do not find him to be a person who would deliberately seek to upset anyone, but, on the other hand, would not shrink from saying what he thought about anything. He is prepared to be controversial. He is what one may describe as a ‘character’, namely one who is unafraid to express his own individuality… I find the claimant to have been an entirely open and honest witness and accept his evidence entirely.
Atheism and secular humanism are philosophical beliefs protected by the Equality Act 2010. The Equality and Human Rights Commission states:
If an employer takes disciplinary action (including dismissal) against an employee for expressing views outside the work-related context this may be an unlawful infringement of the employee’s rights to freedom of expression or to a private life. The right to a private life is protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. This may make such disciplinary action unlawful and any related dismissal unfair.
It does seem quite extraordinary that an employee of 17 years loyal service may be dismissed for expressing a perfectly reasonable (and entirely accurate) view about in Islamic caliphate on social media. Indeed, what is most extraordinary about this case is that West Midlands Trains – a secular organisation – have adopted a zealous sharia approach with regard to what their employees may express on Facebook. Would they have sacked him for thanking f*** we don’t live in an alcohol-free khalsa? What is privileged about the use of a ‘Muslim caliphate’ which does not similarly protect a Sikh khalsa or an evangelical Methodist conference? Why are West Midlands Trains applying an Islamic blasphemy code to an atheist’s private Facebook page?
The full Employment Tribunal hearing is scheduled for 23rd September, and the Free Speech Union has engaged solicitor Robert Dougans of Preiskel & Co, and barrister David Mitchell of 39 Essex Chambers. They explain: “This claim doesn’t just concern Jeremy – it concerns all of us, and our right to keep our jobs and livelihood even when our employers dislike personal opinions we express out of work.”
This is probably true.
If Jeremy Sleath loses, God help any feminist employee who writes on their private Facebook page: “Thank F*** Marie Stopes is open. We cannot let our way of life become like some sort of Catholic abortion-free Christendom just to save unwanted foetuses.”