Religious principles are not in vogue

A European court judgement in favour of wearing the cross at work is a small token of common sense

Published 20 January 2013  |  
PA
The European Court of Human Rights found that BA check in worker Nadia Eweida had been discriminated against by her employers

In Britain, one of the biggest problems for all religions in an increasingly secular society is the regrettable fact that many more cases are going to law which disadvantage the individual believer whilst supposedly upholding some anti-discrimination or equality issue. The law is often a rather blunt instrument in that legislation originally designed in the aftermath of World War II to protect citizens from the excesses of state persecution, by no means confined to Nazi Germany though it is the country usually first exampled, is being used in a blanket-wide manner to cover all infringements of "human rights", real or imagined.

In turn, due to the manner in which the law is being used and some might opine misapplied, employers and companies take the same sweeping approach, "just to be safe", and ban any sign of religious expression such as the wearing of a small crucifix, ensuring presumably that now no-one can take offence. Causing upset to Christians? Well the majority Christian community don't count because, of course, we all know that the legal position has often been set up so as to stop the pernicious consequences of racial and religious discrimination against minorities. There's the rub, for well-intentioned laws enacted so as to protect the country's minorities from abuse are being used in such a manner that anyone who holds their religious principles dear could find it increasingly difficult to perform their duties under their contractual terms and conditions of employment. This situation becomes worse when the task at hand can strike at a fundamental principle of the particular, especially if orthodox, faith held.

A small token of relief for common sense was delivered on 15 January 2013 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) when its judgement found in favour of Egyptian-born, Coptic Christian Ms Nadia Eweida being allowed to continue wearing a small and rather unobtrusive crucifix when working at her job for British Airways (BA). This matter dated back to 2006 after Ms Eweida was sent home for wearing the offending article on the somewhat spurious grounds that by so doing the lady had been spoiling the Airline's aim to "project a certain corporate image". This argument to protect corporate image by BA would have held more weight if other non-Christian staff members had been told to remove turbans and hijabs but obviously the Airline was discriminating against those members of its Christian staff who wished to wear a small token of their faith.

Matthew Champion writing for the Metro quoted the ECHR judgement:

"Ms Eweida's cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance".

In October 2006 Ms Eweida's manager at BA told her at a "diversity awareness meeting" to remove or hide her cross from sight and on her refusal to do so she was suspended from her job at Heathrow Airport, though not sacked. Ms Eweida took the company to an industrial tribunal which in early 2008 found in favour of BA, but largely due to the amount of public support given to Ms Eweida and the consequent bad publicity the Airline was receiving, BA adopted a more reasonable stance. Did the company think that it had treated Ms Eweida, a good and loyal worker in every other respect, unfairly? Much more likely was that BA had more commercial interests at stake. The company's vital American market was learning about the dispute and BA was undoubtedly aware that 76 per cent of America's population still strongly identify themselves as Christians and regular church attendance is still about 36 per cent, uniquely high in the developed world. In February 2007 BA changed its dress code, their spokesman saying:

"Our current policy allows symbols of faith to be worn openly and has been developed with multi-faith groups and our staff."

Ms Eweida continues to be employed by BA so the judgement at the ECHR concerned the case that she brought against the UK Government which had found against her at the tribunal stage and again when the case went to the Court of Appeal. British Airway's changing of its dress code doubtlessly helped the plaintiff's case as the Court pointed out in its judgement:

"...the fact the company was able to amend the uniform code to allow for visible wearing of religious symbolic jewellery demonstrates that the earlier prohibition was not of crucial importance."

The real legal rebuke was reserved for the British Government and Courts and came in the ECHR's final delivery:

"The Court therefore concludes that, in these circumstances where there is no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of others, the domestic authorities failed sufficiently to protect (Ms Eweida's) right to manifest her religion."

At the same hearing of the ECHR other Christians were not so lucky and judgement was found against Gary McFarlane, a marriage counsellor, nurse Shirley Chaplin and registrar Lillian Ladele.

Mr McFarlane was sacked for gross misconduct by Avon branch of the charity Relate after admitting that he would have a personal conflict with discussing sexual problems with gay couples though he said that he was willing to provide such couples with counselling.

Ms Chaplin was transferred to a desk job by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust after refusing to remove "her necklace". She told the BBC after the ruling had gone against her that she had worn a small crucifix on a confirmation chain for 30 years and said that: "Christians are marginalised in the work place." Her case was turned down on health and safety reasons – which, we must presume, had not been apparent during her previous 30 years service!

Ms Ladele was disciplined by Islington Council when she told her employers that she did not wish to conduct same-sex civil partnerships, her lawyer arguing that such services could easily be performed by other employees. The Court determined that the rights of same-sex couples outweighed her objections.

The three plan to ask for their cases to go to appeal to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR. Although the various media reports can only give an outline of what otherwise might be a more complex legal issue, it does appear on the surface that the employers have made little effort to be more accommodating to the three contemplating further appeal. Yet Ladele, McFarlane and Chaplin must really think hard and realistically about their chances of success.
It would appear from reports that McFarlane knew before taking on his job and embarking on a sex therapy course that services were offered by his employer, Relate, to same-sex couples and that there was, especially in light of completing such a course, the expectation that he provide such services to clients regardless of sexual orientation. The idea that Christians in such a position should simply get another job is gaining credence.

In the case of Ladele, although it is difficult to believe that another registrar cannot take her place officiating at same-sex civil partnerships, I don't think her case in the current climate is strong. Try and be the officer doing the writing up and get your colleague to conduct the ceremony. Likewise for Ms Chaplin, "Health and Safety" is one of these catch-all reasons.

The four plaintiffs' cases have been dealt with by a rigid application of the law which is getting ever more complex and often at odds with orthodox religious principles and the followers of these faiths who wish to abide by the tenets of their religion. Islam is very clear on certain matters but, generally speaking there is a hesitancy to take on the followers of that faith. Orthodox Jews are just as clear on the same issues raised by the plaintiffs as Muslims and Christians and the ECHR judgement allowing for the unobtrusive wearing of a crucifix applies just as much - British Airways have made the accommodation in their 2007 uniform code - to the wearing of a small Star of David. Tackling uniform issues though is really the easy bit and the message would appear to be that even this was facilitated by pressure being brought to bear on an international company's vital market.

Principles, especially religious ones are sadly not in vogue.

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