“Teacher suspended in prayer row”

The BBC reports that Olive Jones, a school teacher who’s also a Christian, was suspended for offering to pray for a sick pupil. This case looks similar to that of Caroline Petrie, a nurse who was also suspended (though later reinstated) after she offered to pray for a patient.

The Daily Mail has a longer interview with Mrs Jones than the BBC. I take articles in the Heil with a pinch of salt, but I assume they wouldn’t directly misquote her, as they’re on her side. Some salient points from their story: Jones is a supply teacher who visits the homes of kids who are too ill to come to school. After a previous incident, she’d been warned before that it wasn’t appropriate to pray with her pupils. The parent who complained had previously complained after Jones gave a testimony (evangelical jargon, usually referring to a story about how someone became a Christian, told for the purpose of evangelism, though in this case it was about how God saved her from being crushed by a tractor) in front of the parent, but the complaint hadn’t reached the right people, so when she did so again in front of the parent and child and also offered to pray, the parent complained to the school. Mrs Jones is now suspended pending an investigation. It’s not clear whether the decision to investigate happened after the press got involved: it looks like Jones is a contractor who can be fired without notice, not a full time employee of the school.

Inevitably, the Heil‘s commenters, and those at Cranmer’s blog, blame Muslims, political correctness, New Labour etc. etc. I suspect that if the story had been about a Muslim or Pagan doing what Mrs Jones did, the Mail‘s take on it would have been rather different (though I hope that the school’s response would not have been).

Jones’s actions as described by the Heil seemed to me to be deserving of disciplinary action from her employers. The same would apply if a Muslim or a Pagan had done the same, or if a strident neo-sceptical toxic rationalist neo-atheist had told the kid there’s no God and no miracles. Teachers aren’t paid to give unprompted religious “testimonies”, and shouldn’t assume that they’re welcome (especially in someone’s home). If the parent or the kid had asked about Jones’s religious beliefs, it’d be different, but there’s no evidence that this happened. It’s beholden on the school to ensure they comply with employment law, and firing for the first offence seems too harsh, but if someone’s on an at-will contract and has been warned once before, I can perfectly understand the decision to fire them.

I don’t think this is a free speech issue: Jones is free to pray on her own time (which will surely be as effective as praying with the family), and indeed, she was free to do what the Heil said she did and accept the consequences.

Tom Harris, MP and Ian Dale have further thoughts on the matter.

Edited to add: Tabloid Watch has the story from the parents who complained. Their daughter is 14 and has leukaemia, and they’d endured Jones’s evangelism for a while before complaining.

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