The European Court of Human Rights will tomorrow deliver its judgment in four closely-watched cases which have exposed the growing intolerance of Christian belief in the British public square.
Each concerns British employees who claim their human right to religious freedom was breached by their employers’ actions.
Article 9 of the European Convention protects the right to ‘manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance’ unless a limitation on this right is ‘prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society … for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’, and is a necessary and proportionate response to a legitimate harm.
The first pair of cases concern the symbols and marks of being a Christian: a British Airways employee, Nadia Eweida (far right), who was told she could not wear a cross over her uniform at work because it was not an acceptable piece of jewellery, and an NHS nurse, Shirley Chaplin, who was also banned from wearing a cross over her clothes on the grounds it could pose a choking hazard to her if a patient were to pull at it.
Both Eweida and Chaplain claimed that it was an essential aspect of their faith to show publicly that they were Christian, and that hiding the jewellery would not be enough.
BA later changed their clothing policy to acknowledge that a small cross was an aspect of being a sincere Christian akin to wearing a turban or hijab for a person of Sikh or Islamic faith; Chaplin’s NHS Trust maintained their ban. Interestingly, although the English courts found that cross-wearing was not a protected manifestation of Christianity for the purposes of Article 9, it was accepted that BA would be acting disproportionately if they banned cross-wearing simply to keep their staff looking smart and professional.
The second pair of cases concern the conscientious beliefs of bring a Christian.
Lillian Ladele was a civil marriage registrar for Islington Borough Council who was happy to conduct opposite-sex civil marriages but said that it was against her faith as a Christian to conduct same-sex civil partnerships, after these were created in 2004. Islington told her she now had to conduct civil partnerships, or be in contravention of their ‘equality policy’. She maintained her stance and was dismissed.
Gary McFarlane was a counsellor for Relate, a relationship counselling and sex-therapy organization, and a Christian. Whilst happy to counsel same-sex relationships, he was unhappy to participate in sexual therapy with them. Like Ladele, McFarlane was told his views were discriminatory, and he was fired.
It is essential to note that in both cases neither employee was a ‘shirker’ trying to get out of work: they were happy to reorient their workloads to do more counselling/civil marriages, freeing up other counsellors and registrars. Thus, a simple accommodation of their beliefs – relatively-orthodox Christian views – could have been made by rejigging work schedules.
Barrister Paul Diamond, a religious freedom specialist who appeared before the Strasbourg court, noted in the Sunday Telegraph that the cult of legal equality was in fact another set of values imposed on all by the state:
It seems that the British legal system is intent on removing the Judeo-Christian foundation of our laws, which have served us for a thousand years, replacing them with a secular, liberal worldview which dispenses tolerance to all those who agree with it and relentless hostility, or even persecution, to those who do not.
The former (Anglican) Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, also said over the weekend that the government had “promise to review legislation”, including the Equality Act 2010, in light of the judgments. He hoped the review would be “speedy and unambiguous” if Strasbourg found reasons for allowing cross-wearing to be banned by employers:
This is a matter of conscience for people like Shirley Chaplin and Nadia Eweida and, in any civilized country, there should be reasonable accommodation of such conscience at the work place and in the public square, especially as it does not cause harm to anyone else.
Just to emphasise the intellectual difficulties involved in religious freedom and conscientious objection disputes, in the Guardian, Joshua Rozenberg has noted how a case reported at Christmas (‘Christians have no right to refuse to work on Sundays rules judge’) was much more complicated that the newspapers thought. After considering the interlocking factual and legal provisions, he concluded: “All this is quite subtle and complicated”.
All the more reason, then, for the Government to legislate for a robust defence of religious freedom akin to the First Amendment of the US Constitution.