As most people seem to be aware of by now last Wednesday David Cameron was asked by David Davis MP during Prime Minister’s Question time why the Government was not supporting the case of Nadia Eweida at the European Court of Human Rights. Ms Eweida is appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for the right to wear a religious symbol at work after being barred by British Airways (BA) from wearing a crucifix while working at Heathrow Airport. Here’s the video of the question and response:
This case has been going on in various forms since October 2006 when she was put on unpaid leave by BA for refusing to cover up her cross. It’s been a long, complicated and drawn out affair. If you want the background details then this entry in Wikipedia gives a blow-by-blow account and as far as I can see is accurate. After Ms Eweida’s suspension and failed appeal Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly stated that in his view the issue was not worth BA fighting and that it would be best for the airline “just to do the sensible thing” and allow crosses to be worn. After increasing pressure to back down, BA did change its uniform policy to allow all religious symbols, including crosses, to be worn openly. Following this change Ms Eweida returned to work but then became involved in another dispute when BA refused to pay her for the period of her suspension. Ms Eweida took BA to Employment Tribunal, Tribunal Appeal, the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court. At each stage she either lost or her case was refused a hearing. So finally her case has now reached the ECHR. This will be the last stop on the journey. It will test whether BA broke Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
If Nadia Eweida wins her case then a precedent will have been set and employers will not be able to bar their employees from wearing religious symbols, but if she loses according to David Cameron the Government will seek to get the law changed to allow this to happen, so it would appear that Ms Eweida cannot lose whatever the outcome.
Mr Cameron’s comments on Wednesday were unexpected. Until this point the Government had refused to support her case at the ECHR. This is despite many politicians speaking out in favour of her cause including Boris Johnson in this article in March. Business Secretary, Vince Cable who is Miss Eweida’s constituency MP had written to Theresa May, the Home Secretary in 2011 asking for a change in the law but at the time was told this would be impossible.
This latest turnaround by Government ministers follows on from their intervention after the Bideford Town Council prayers saga which resulted in Communities Secretary Eric Pickles effectively reversing the High Court’s decision that the Devon council’s prayers were unlawful by changing the Localism Act. I can’t remember seeing these sort of interventions by government over religious issues before this year and David Cameron’s comments confirm that despite the continued secularisation of our country, government leaders still believe that faith has an important role to play and if necessary they will go out of their way to make sure this remains the case. Through these comments and actions I get the impression that the current government cares more about publicly defending the rights of religious freedom than the previous one did. For this I am thankful.
The contradiction between what ministers are now saying and what the govenment has been doing is demonstrated in its submission to the ECHR regarding Ms Eweida’s case. Back in October last year the Government made these points:
“The Government submit that… the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not a manifestation of their religion or belief within the meaning of Article 9, and…the restriction on the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not an ‘interference’ with their rights protected by Article 9.
“In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.
“Where the individual in question is free to resign and seek employment elsewhere or practise their religion unfettered outside their employment, that is sufficient to guarantee their Article 9 rights in domestic law.”
This doesn’t match up with what David Cameron and other ministers have been saying and seems to imply that if your employer does not let you wear a cross then you should stop moaning or get a new job.
This apparent paradox is explored and summed up extremely effectively in this article by Nelson Jones in the New Statesman. He says:
“It’s unlikely that any minister has even seen the… formal submission to the Strasbourg court drawn up by government lawyers… Unless the government brings in legislation to explicitly allow Eweida and Chaplin to wear their crosses at work, government lawyers have no choice but to set out the legal position as arrived at by the domestic courts.
“An irony in all this is that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a body regularly denounced by the Mail and the Telegraph (as well as in a recent report by Evangelical MPs) for its alleged anti-Christian bias, is supporting Eweida and Chaplin [another Christian who has been refused permission to wear a cross at work] at Strasbourg. In its recent review of the state of human rights in Britain, the EHRC argued that the British courts had interpreted the law too narrowly. In particular it was wrong to conclude that because it was not a religious requirement for Christians to wear a cross all the time individual Christians need not feel a personal obligation to do so.”
So trying to take all this on board, this is what’s bugging me:
When it comes to legislating on issues of belief, there is a lack of joined up thinking in government. Contrary statements and actions lead to confusion. The Government’s dealings are very much reactionary, only stepping in when the next legal ruling on public manifestations of belief gets blown up in the media. Since religion has been drawn into the arena of equalities legislation there has been a continuous stream of cases relating to belief going to court with some very overbearing judgments. Each time it reinforces the point that belief and the law do not make comfortable bedfellows. When the law defines what religions can and cannot do, it only ends in tears.
I can’t imagine that thirty years ago a case like Ms Eweida’s would have ever gone to court. It would have been ridiculous for so much fuss to have been made over the wearing of a cross at work. It goes to show how much things have changed in a relatively short period of time. Government and the legal system are struggling to adapt to these changes and find a sensible balance, but the church is struggling even more.
Whether we are willing to admit it or not we are in the last throes of Christendom in our country. The religious foundations of our society have been fundamentally shaken. The church is having to adapt to a new environment where its teachings and actions are not automatically respected and accepted. These legal battles that Christians are being drawn into don’t tend to make anyone look good. Certainly Christians should be allowed to defend our rights on grounds of justice, but also there is a wisdom needed that understands that the church cannot expect to be treated as it was previously. The gospel is not going to be spread through the courts and the goodwill towards Ms Eweida that has been shown by many cannot be expected to last indefinitely if Christians become increasingly litigious.
The church needs to pick its battles wisely. The apostle Paul was often in court and did what he could to work the law to his advantage. Some battles need to be fought, but often it needs to be accepted that the old structures are becoming increasingly irrelevant in our society and Christians need to understand that Christian privilege is a dying concept. We need to be careful about throwing the persecution label around unnecessarily and begin to understand that Christians need to see how they can live out their gospel calling in this new paradigm without compromising their core beliefs. We can’t rely on the Government to change the law every time a decision goes against aspects of Christian belief and the church can’t expect to carry on as it is without becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The gospel will never change, but society does. It may have not changed for the better, but we can’t deny the reality of the situation. Christians need to read the times wisely, adapt and act accordingly which, whether we like it or not, may include getting used to living without things that have previously been taken for granted.