Cameron says “people can wear religious emblems at work”, so what’s bugging me?

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.

Categories: David Cameron, Faith in society, Government

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9 replies

  1. Well said. ‘Nuff said.

  2. o- and I so want that cross!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to post another eloquent, well-researched, sound analysis although I may not neccesarily agree on all points. A couple of brief things on my mind if I may:

    A major part of the problem is that crosses have become an increasingly popular item of jewellery that many wear purely for adornment. I wouldn’t hazard a guess at the number who are non-believers and unaware of its profound significance in this near-pagan nation. So those who wear it as an emblem of faith may be in the minority. Hence, employment related decisions may have been made with that in mind.

    In the present ‘shaking’ of everything that the Lord is bringing about for His purposes (per Haggai 2:6-7, Hebrews 12:25-29) this will include those parts of the church which are not within His Kingdom, or ‘fit-for-purpose’. At least a couple of teachers/evangelists are of the prophetical impression that Jesus is going to be rapidly moving then into the public proclamation of His blood and cross – ie. the basic foundation of the true Gospel – I’d add, that all else may well be severely pruned away.

    Lack of ‘joined-up’ thinking hardly comes as a surprise because, imho, it’s surely a result of worldly values colliding with those of God – as prophesied in the very first writings of the Church, namely the letters to the Thessalonians, and call us to stand fast and hold onto the (even then) traditional teachings.

    • thank you Richard. I’m quite happy for anyone to disagree with me as I don’t believe I get everything right even though I do my best to try.

      You’re right about crosses and this separates them from such things as turbans which are almost always worn by those following a particular religion. Crosses have just become part of our culture to the point where some people don’t even know what they represent.

      There is currently a big collision going on between faith and legislation. Due to the high levels of religious illiteracy in government and the judicial system, for those who do not understand belief systems in detail, it is very easy to misunderstand or make assumptions. Christianity in particular because it is not based on a written law in the same way that Judaism or Islam is makes it difficult to bring into a legal framework at times.

      The problem is that belief isn’t meant to be ruled over by the law and as I’ve said attempts to fit it defined parameters is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

      It just won’t work.

      I’m also of the belief that there is a lot of dead wood in the church and in order for it to be healthy in the future some parts will need to be cut away by God. He’s been doing this for some time now and we shouldn’t be surprised to see more of it happening. While it might be painful, those who understand what God is doing shouldn’t be fearful, but rather embrace what He is doing.

      • I know we’re not poles apart on this or other things Gillan. I was stirring in case anyone thought Christians should simply surrender and curl up. I think turning the other cheek is done whilst standing up.

  4. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    In this post my friend Gillan Scott proffers a detailed and well-researched analysis of the issues and governmental confusion. Whilst I may not agree with all his points (see Comments), it is well worth reading.

  5. Many Christians do not wear a cross because they say we should be known by the fruit of the spirit rather than our symbols. It is not mentioned as a requirement in scripture but of course we do so identify with the cross, its mystery and meaning. I do not wear a cross myself but when i have occasionally worn a Christian t shirt or wrist band people will often comment and ask questions. symbols can perform a practical function in this way and any means by which we can have a conversation about Jesus must be good. The cross is a non verbal way of identifying with Jesus, so its not so much about jewellery as expression. So what must we let pass as unimportant and in what should we speak up and stand firm in Christ. How can we judge where that point of wisdom is ? The result of the forthcoming cases in the European courts will give us a clearer picture of just how secular ( or not ) we have become in law as a continent. So what will our response be, are we to be embarrassed by those who make a stand on ”expression” yet if we remain quiet will those who want to keep religious views behind the temple door become more encouraged and use the law to limit other more important aspects of our faith.

    • Graham, good points and ‘Yes’ in answer to your closing remark, which points out a substantial factor, if not the main reason, behind our national decline.

      In discussing the state of the nation this morning with an ex-convict friend, he pointed out that throughout his decades of evangelical ministry in prisons he has witnessed therein a great deterioration in our national character. As elsewhere in society, Muslim inmates have gained such clout and privileges within these institutions because of PC policies. Those radicals are contemptuous of politicians and Christians for having a belief that’s devoid of all personal commitment and application. If we had their zeal our nation would be a lot different.

      We need to realise Jesus was radical and stood up against religious nonsense as well as persecution. Christian originally meant ‘little Christs’, but most of us are unworthy of that title – we need to be like Him in our belief, life and ministry, not namby-pamby!

      So unless we make a stand it will only get worse.