Hello everyone and thank you for joining us for another case of the week update. For everyone that missed our last update about a whistleblowing claim, you can find that here. This week, we are looking at whether a Christian actress can be fairly dismissed from a lesbian role in the case of Omooba v Michael Garret Associates.

The Claimant, Seyi Omooba, was employed as an actress by the two Respondents, the agency and the theatre. The Claimant grew up in a committed Christian household, as her father is a pastor who runs a Christian centred legal advice service. In September 2014, when the Claimant was at university, she posted a comment on Facebook which condemned homosexuality and described it as a sin. Following her graduation, the Claimant signed with the First Respondent in August 2016. In the following years, the Claimant expressed concerns about the nature of some of the roles available to her, turning down multiple roles including the Book of Mormon and Junkyard, due to the satirical depiction of Christian beliefs and the sexuality of the character she was asked to portray.

In November 2018, the Claimant was invited to audition for a part in the performance of ‘The Color Purple’. For those that are not aware of the play or the Pulitzer Prize winning book – the story centres around Celie, a fictional African American woman and her experience in the early 20th Century. Importantly, the story also involves a physical lesbian relationship with the main character, who is seen as an iconic lesbian role. The Claimant, having seen the film adaptation and read the book, stated that she did not view the character as a lesbian and denied that the play was about lesbianism. She did not read the script for Celie, as she had initially auditioned for another role in the play which she had performed in the past. Following the audition and negotiations between the agency and the theatre, the Claimant accepted the part of Celie on 19 January 2019. A public announcement was made, and a Q and A session scheduled for 18 March. The Claimant had still not read the script for the part she accepted, which included kissing another female actress.

On 14 March, Aaron Lee Lambert, an actor with no connection with any of the parties, tweeted the Claimant’s 2014 Facebook post along with the following message: ‘Do you still stand by this post? Or are you happy to remain a hypocrite? Seeing as you’ve now been announced to be playing a LGBTQ character, I think you owe your LGBTQ peers an explanation, immediately.’ The tweet gained significant traction online, to the point that it came to the attention of the Second Respondent’s CEO. When the topic was discussed with the Claimant, she stated that her views remained unchanged.

Considering their next steps, the Second Respondent turned to the wording of the underlying licence agreement, which stated: ‘at times, an actor’s skill set may call for the playing of a part which may not be in alignment with personal beliefs. However, the supportive environment of theatre cannot embrace a position, especially from the actor in the leading role of Celie, that creates a hostile atmosphere for the cast members and audience alike’. A boycott of the production (which would run at a loss even with good ticket sales) began. Internal dissentions from other actors and actresses, heckling of promoters during press releases and ticket refund demands also increased. The Claimant’s employment was terminated as a result on 21 March 2019 with immediate effect, with the Respondents offering to pay the full contract sum of £4,309.71.

The Claimant brought claims for unfair dismissal, belief discrimination and harassment. While the Employment Tribunal did find that the situation would not have arisen but for the expression of her belief, which was genuinely held, it was the negative publicity and concern for the project’s success which was the principal reason for the dismissal. The claim was therefore dismissed and costs awarded, due to the fact that the claim for harassment had no reasonable prospects of success, due to the Respondents not being responsible for the online harassment. The failure to judge the case on its merits and instead using it as a publicity opportunity for the Claimant’s representatives (the Claimant’s father’s legal advice service) and turning down the contract sum was unreasonable and vexatious. The Claimant appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, but the appeal was dismissed.

Takeaway Points

While the EAT considered the assertion that the Claimant had been discriminated against due to her Christian beliefs, they were not the primary reason for her dismissal. Rather, they formed part of the contextual backdrop. The core issue leading to the dismissal was the genuine concern for the business’ reputation and the commercial success of the performance, in light of public outcry.

Regarding the Claimant’s contract claim, the crucial factor was the Respondents’ offer of the full contract sum. The Claimant’s refusal of this sum without a reasonable explanation meant she had no pecuniary losses to claim at the Tribunal. This underscores the importance of Claimants actively mitigating their losses, as failure to do so can result in the claim having no financial value.

If you or someone you know has faced a similar issue, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a member of our team for assistance.