Crosses, conscience and common sense

Christians have always lived a life of two halves – one in the more private spheres of the church and the home where faith can be expressed uninhibited, and the other in the more public realms where expressions of their faith will often have to be balanced with living and working alongside those who may not be familiar with or sympathetic to their beliefs.

They are often careful about when and how they choose to speak about their faith at work and with colleagues. Many baulk at the idea of avoiding careers in traditionally secular industries, feeling a sense of duty to be salt and light. Christian children are regularly sent to non-Christian schools as there may not be a place available even if there is a Christian school near at hand. Friendships are readily struck with those who do not share their beliefs. Those who wear Christian symbols tend to go for the small and discreet.

The fact is that there are a myriad of circumstances in which Christians compromise in the way they express their faith because they understand that they live alongside many who do not share it and in a world where there are many restrictions, most of which Christians would accept as reasonable or fair. While a certain limitation on the expression of their faith may not be preferential, it is mostly tolerable and worked around without complaint.

However, there are times when compromising on a particular expression of faith would leave some Christians in a position where they felt their conscience was being compromised. There are also instances, it appears, where Christians are being asked to compromise on expressions of their faith in a way that others are not.

British Airlines worker Nadia Eweida is a case in point. BA requested that she remove a small cross from her uniform because it was compromising the airline's ability to "project a certain corporate image". It was hard to justify this position when it emerged that staff of other faiths had been permitted to wear items pertinent to their faith. BA changed its uniform policy several years ago but the court judgement sent an important message.

The European Court of Human Rights judged that Ms Eweida, a Coptic Christian, had been discriminated against by her employers on religious grounds and found that, although not a religious requirement, wearing the cross in the workplace was acceptable under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This should help restore the imbalance in the way the cross is perceived vis-a-vis other faith symbols by employers. It certainly puts paid to the UK Government's remarkable assertion that the cross was not a generally recognised Christian symbol.

Importantly, the ruling from the court concluded that an employee's faith should be protected in the workplace "where there is no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of others" - a very welcome dose of common sense from ECHR that was sadly lacking in our own courts.

A similar argument for "reasonable accommodation" was made by the lawyers for registrar Lillian Ladele, who was disciplined by Islington Council, in north London, for refusing to register civil partnerships. Ms Ladele was in her job before civil partnerships were introduced and had never expected to perform such duties. She found herself in an impossible situation when the law changed in 2004 and was told it would be a requirement to register civil partnerships. She asked to opt out on grounds of conscience, but was refused even though other registrars were available to perform the ceremonies in her place.

However, the same court that came down in favour of Ms Eweida concluded that Ms Ladele had not been discriminated against. It decided that employers have a "wide margin of freedom" to strike a balance between conflicting rights in the workplace. This will undoubtedly leave some Christians in the position of having to choose between a job and their faith. This is a choice that should not and need not be made.

Accommodation of faith by employers need not mean that equality policies are broken or that services are not provided fairly. With a little thought, different convictions or unobtrusive expressions of faith need not lead to unpleasant dismissals, disciplinary action, or lengthy legal battles. Tolerance and equality should not be a burden or vice to society. They should be a blessing, allowing all to flourish. Needless conflict could so easily be avoided with just a little compromise.