Christians have a right to follow conscience, says equality body

Christians should be given some leeway to follow their beliefs in the workplace, the UK’s equality watchdog has determined.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said judges had interpreted the law “too narrowly” in cases where Christians had claimed religious discrimination.

It is backing four British Christians who have lodged religious discrimination cases with the European Court of Human Rights.

They are Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in clerk who was dismissed without pay in 2006 for refusing to cover up her cross necklace; nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was removed from ward duties after refusing a similar request; Gary McFarlane, a relationships counsellor who was sacked for refusing to give sex therapy to same-sex couples; and Lillian Ladele, a registrar who was disciplined for refusing to conduct civil partnership registrations.

EHRC said that the way existing human rights and equality law was being interpreted by judges was “insufficient” to protect freedom of religion or belief.

Moreover, the EHRC argued that rulings by British and European courts had created a “confusing and contradictory” body of law that was also making it “difficult” for employers to know how to treat the religious sensitivities of their employees.

The commission said it was possible for employers to accommodate expression of religion alongside the rights of people who are not religious and the needs of their business.

It is proposing “reasonable accommodation” to help employers manage religion in the workplace and resolve disputes before they turn into legal actions.

John Wadham, legal group director at the commission said: “Our intervention in these cases would encourage judges to interpret the law more broadly and more clearly to the benefit of people who are religious and those who are not.

“The idea of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate a person’s needs has served disability discrimination law well for decades.

“It seems reasonable that a similar concept could be adopted to allow someone to manifest their religious beliefs.”

The intervention comes not long after the EHRC was criticised by the Evangelical Alliance for failing to support Christians who faced discrimination.

The Evangelical Alliance said it was not so much secular humanists making Christians feel under siege as “governments and bodies like the Commission that buy into their narrow secularising agenda by pursuing policies that directly and indirectly marginalise people of faith”.

This week, the Church of England General Synod heard that equality laws are making it increasingly difficult for Christians to express their faith in the workplace.

Church of England bishops have met with Coalition ministers to voice their concerns over restrictions being placed on Christians by some employers.

Dr Philip Giddings, chairman of the Church’s public affairs council, said: “Some employers have interpreted the law in ways which seem to assume that reasonable and respectful expressions of faith are, almost by definition, offensive. This is a cause of great concern."

Dr Giddings said Coalition ministers had been "sympathetic" and that the Church was looking forward to "practical responses".