Christians should leave their religious beliefs at home or accept that a personal expression of faith at work, such as wearing a cross, means they might have to resign and get another job, government lawyers have said.
By Bruno Waterfield, Strasbourg
12:59PM BST 04 Sep 2012
Landmark cases, brought by four British Christians, including two workers forced out of their jobs after visibly wearing crosses, have been heard today at the European Court of Human Rights
David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has previously pledged to change the law to protect religious expression at work but official legal submissions on Tuesday to Strasbourg human rights judges made a clear “difference between the professional and private sphere”.
James Eadie QC, acting for the government, told the European court that the refusal to allow an NHS nurse and a British Airways worker to visibly wear a crucifix at work “did not prevent either of them practicing religion in private”, which would be protected by human rights law.
He argued that that a Christian, or any other religious believer, “under difficulty” is not discriminated against if the choice of “resigning and moving to a different job” is not blocked.
“The option remains open to them,” he said.
Government lawyers also told the Strasbourg court that wearing a cross is not a “generally recognised” act of Christian worship and is not required by scripture.
Nadia Eweida, a BA worker, from Twickenham, south-west London, made the headlines when she was sent home in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross or hide it from view.
An employment tribunal ruled Ms Eweida, a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt, had not suffered religious discrimination, but the airline changed its uniform policy after the case to allow all religious symbols, including crosses.
Nurse Shirley Chaplin, from Exeter, was moved to a paperwork role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after refusing to remove a necklace bearing a crucifix.
Ms Chaplin told The Daily Telegraph that she felt “insulted” by the argument that Christians who are told by their employer that they cannot wear a cross at work can always find another job.
“My Christian faith isn’t something that you put on and then take off to go to work. It is with you 27/7. It is my identity, it is who I am, I cannot chop and change it,” she said.
The human rights challenge also includes the cases of a Relate therapist sacked for saying he might not be comfortable giving sex counselling to homosexual couples and a Christian registrar who wishes not to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.
Gary McFarlane, a Bristol marriage counsellor, was sacked for refusing to give sex therapy to homosexuals and registrar Lillian Ladele was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London.
Dinah Rose QC, acting for Ms Ladele, attacked the government’s argument as “startling” because it appeared to suggest that an employer can discriminate against someone on religious grounds, such as anti-Semitism, as long as the employee was able to leave their job and find another one elsewhere.
“An employer could have a policy of refusing to employ Jews because other employers will employ them,” she observed.
The four British Christians argue that the actions of their employers contravened articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit religious discrimination and allow “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
Paul Diamond, a lawyer for Ms Chaplin and Mr McFarlane, accused the British courts of creating “insurmountable hurdles” for Christians to express personal belief and faith.
“The implications go far beyond the individuals. In the United Kingdom, religious people who have followed their convictions in the workplace in the face of overly vague discrimination laws have been sacked, demoted or disciplined. Among them have been doctors, magistrates, teachers, foster parents, therapists and many others,” he said.
“In my respectful submission, the situation for religious liberty in Britain is now critical.”
Mr McFarlane, insisted that all he wanted was “a balanced playing field”. “ The courts in the UK and employers have been over-zealous in their application, to the significant detriment of those of the Christian faith – the very great detriment,” he said.
The court case has shown that the authorities are divided with major differences emerging between Mr Cameron’s position that being able to wear a cross at work is a “vital freedom” and the submission of government lawyers that religious expression is not a workplace right.
The disarray has been deepened after new documents prepared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission instructed employers to “accommodate expression of religion” by their workers.
“The courts have set the bar too high for someone to prove that they have been discriminated against because of their religion or belief,” said the commission.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society (NSS) said that if the four win their case this would lead to a “hierarchy of rights” with religion at the top.
“Any change to the law to increase religious accommodation stands the risk of seriously undermining UK equality law. This is likely to be a landmark case determining the future direction of equality law in the UK, and potentially also in Europe,” he said.
“There is no ban on crucifixes in the UK – hundreds of thousands of people wear them every day without problem.”