Prior to yesterday’s ruling at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), I was hoping that we would get some legal clarity on the issues of religious freedom that had been presented. If anything I was hoping for this more than for the ruling to go in favour of the applicants; Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane, much as I wanted to see their cases bringing success. Having had them dragging on for years, it’s really time we know where we all stand especially as the ECHR is the final port of call in the legal process. Once cases get to this point, it’s the end of the line for them, although there is a possibility they may be referred to the ECHR Grand Chamber. With the result going in favour of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin losing hers, the lines have now been drawn when it comes to wearing a religious symbol at work. Nadia Eweida’s case was always the strongest and it was great news to hear that she won. For the months leading up to the EHCR hearing she has had the backing of the several high-profile figures including the Prime Minister who tweeted this after the ruling came out:
It’s a shame his government lawyers weren’t able to agree with him when they were presenting their case at the court. Because their role is to back up the British courts’ decisions, their argument was that the wearing of a visible cross is not a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith. They also argued that where someone 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. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights 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.”
Sensibly the ECHR found that the British courts had placed too much weight on Eweida’s employer, Britsh Airways’ aim for staff to project a certain corporate image deciding that her wearing of a cross did not harm that image and that therefore she should be allowed to wear it.
If you needed evidence that in our country the freedom of religious expression is being eroded, as some Christians believe then Ms Eweida’s success would appear to be proof of this. Her case had failed four times at tribunal and court hearings before it reached the ECHR. Even with an apparently simple case like this that in theory could have been sorted out early on, the British courts have been reluctant to side with the individual trying to protect their religious rights. It’s evidence that in the hierarchy of rights in the British legal system, the weighting of religious belief has been suppressed too far.
On balance, Shirley Chaplin’s case was probably the weakest. She was told that as a nurse she could not wear a chain around her neck even if it had a cross on it due to her hospital’s health and safety policy. The court made the distinction that if a religious symbol is likely to interfere with an employee’s role then that is sufficient grounds to disallow it. This would appear to be a reasonable request especially as in this case, all forms of necklace were banned and the hospital gave Ms Chaplin other suggestions as to how she could have displayed a cross.
Looking at the various opinion articles from the newspapers it would seem that there is almost unanimous agreement that the ECHR called this one correctly. Only the British courts, government lawyers and a few secularists seem to disagree. Even British Airways changed their policy to allow staff to wear religious jewellry after Ms Eweida’s case first made the headlines, which worked in her favour.
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, responding to the judgment, said: “Christians and those of other faiths should be free to wear the symbols of their own religion without discrimination. Christians are not obliged to wear a cross but should be free to show their love for and trust in Jesus Christ in this way if they so wish. Whether people can wear a cross or pray with someone should not be something about which courts and tribunals have to rule.” Whilst Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said the judgment was “an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense’. She said British courts had ‘lost their way’ in Ms Eweida’s case and that ‘Strasbourg has actually acted more in keeping with our traditions of tolerance”
It’s still hard to believe that we’ve got to the point where huge amounts of time and money have been spent arguing over whether someone should be allowed to wear a discreet symbol of their faith, particularly something so universally recognised as a cross. It shows how much Christianity has slipped from the nation’s collective conscience in recent decades. Not so long ago it wouldn’t have been given it a second thought. Employees’ performances are not going to be hindered if they wear such a symbol. If anything they are more likely to show loyalty to a company if they are given the opportunity to express their beliefs appropriately. Some might say that it’s political correctness gone mad, but I think it’s more indicative of a society that increasingly lacks the understanding and confidence to know how to deal with those of a religious persuasion who choose to manifest their religious commitments in a public way. Whether the reason is a misguided fear of offending those of differing beliefs, a desire to suppress supposedly irrational beliefs or just confusion on how to act in a diverse and pluralist culture, the result is that rather than giving people the freedom to be open, the attempt is made to control expression of belief so it fits in neat boxes that can be easily managed. Getting to the point where we now have courts saying what can or cannot be worn in the workplace doesn’t seem like progress to me. It only forces us to be more intolerant and weary of each other. Religion will never sit comfortably with secular legislation as the two will always be working towards different goals. Trying to force one upon the other will inevitably result in tears.
Christianity is not going to disappear and go away at any point in the future and hopefully the ECHR judgement is a timely reminder to the British courts and employers that you can’t separate people from their religious faith, even in the workplace. There shouldn’t need to be a fight over this because there’s nothing to be gained by suppressing religion when it’s not causing anyone any harm. Fortunately these sort of instances are rare and thanks to Nadia Eweida and the others who were brave enough to take their cases to the ECHR hopefully this will make sure the British courts will act with a bit more care and consideration towards Christians and those of other faiths in future.
I shall discuss the cases of Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane in a future post.
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