Council of Europe tells member states to respect conscience

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this week passed a resolution calling on its 47 member states to accommodate religious beliefs in the public sphere.

The resolution asks member states to guarantee freedom of thought in relation to health care, education and the civil service "provided that the rights of others to be free from discrimination are respected and that the access to lawful services is guaranteed".

The resolution was passed on Wednesday by 148 votes to three. It also called on States to "ensure the right to well-defined conscientious objection in relation to morally sensitive matters".

Andrea Minichiello Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, welcomed the outcome: "We are pleased that the influential Parliamentary Assembly has voted to underline the crucial importance of freedom of thought, conscience and religion for ensuring societies that are genuinely free and flourishing.

"We are also delighted to see the call for reasonable accommodation to protect that freedom. We urge the European Court of Human Rights to insist on such accommodation as a sensible, practical way forward and we call on the UK to begin to reflect this important principle."

The advocacy group recently asked the European Court of Human Rights to grant a hearing at the Grand Chamber on the cases of two British Christians who lost their discrimination claims earlier this year.

In a preliminary judgment in January, the European Court ruled that British Airways had failed to protect the religious freedom of employee Nadia Eweida when the airline refused to allow her to wear a cross necklace.

The ruling strongly criticised the UK's approach to religious freedom and rejected the UK Government's argument that resigning and finding another job was a form of religious freedom.

It also dismissed the Government's claim that the wearing of the cross did not merit protection under the European Convention because it was not core to Christian identity.

However, the court did not find in favour of nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was taken off frontline ward duties for refusing to remove her cross, and relationships counsellor Gary McFarlane, who was sacked after telling his employer he would not be able to provide sex therapy to gay couples.

The court ruled that the infringement was within the 'margin of appreciation' afforded to member states.

In the Grand Chamber application submitted earlier this month, Chaplin and McFarlane argue that Article 9 protections in the UK will be rendered virtually meaningless in practice if the court does not give clearer direction, particularly where there is hostility to Christian beliefs.

Nurse Shirley Chaplin is concerned the Government will be able to effectively introduce a blanket ban on wearing the cross without justification or scrutiny.

Gary McFarlane says he was effectively penalised for 'thought-crime' since no-one would have been denied access to a service as a consequence of his possible conscientious objection to providing gay sex therapy.

A decision on whether the Grand Chamber will hear the cases is not expected for several weeks.

Ms Williams said: "We hope that the referral to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will be accepted.

"We are deeply concerned that the European Court of Human Rights can recognise an interference with Shirley Chaplin and Gary McFarlane's 'freedom of thought, conscience and religion' but that those rights are wholly undermined in the member states where the prevailing political ideology conflicts with that belief.

"In these ground-breaking cases politics meets law. Solutions need to be found to set the tone for religious freedom across Europe."