British Christians Await Top Court Ruling on Wearing a Cross at Work

January 11, 2013 - 5:46 AM

Christian crosses

Two of the plaintiffs whose cases will be finalized next week say their employers restricted their right to wear crosses, symbols of their Christian faith, at work. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Europe’s highest court next week will hand down rulings in the cases of four British Christians who claim to have been discriminated in the workplace because of their religious beliefs.

Two of the applicants, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, said their rights were violated when employers barred them from wearing crosses visibly at work.

A third, Lillian Ladele, a local government marriage registrar, objected to conducting civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples – after the law changed in 2005 to allow them – and said she was disciplined and ultimately forced to resign after refusing to so.

And Gary McFarlane, a counselor with a national organization that provides sex and relationship counseling, was fired over a dispute about providing counseling to same-sex couples.

All four had their cases rejected by employment tribunals, and in submission to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), they claimed that domestic law in Britain had failed to adequately protect their religious rights.

They pointed to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

The Strasbourg, France-based court held a full hearing last September 4, considering submissions from representatives for the British government and the applicants.

Speaking for the government, James Eadie argued that a balance must be struck between individuals’ right to practice their religion and the rights of others, and the wider community.

He said the European Convention on Human Rights does not give an employee the right to insist that employment conditions should to changed, to accommodate their religious belief, and that “employees are free to resign if they consider that the requirements of their employment are incompatible with their religious beliefs.”

Eweida, a Coptic Christian and British Airways staffer at Heathrow Airport, was told by her employer to remove or cover up a small cross she wears around her neck.

“Ms. Eweida regarded wearing and displaying the cross as integral to her identity and being, and she’s hardly the first Christian who has wanted to wear the cross as a distinguishing feature of her faith,” her legal counsel, James Dingemans, told the court.

He said she was working alongside colleagues who were allowed to wear other religious attire, including the Sikh turban and Islamic hijab.

“It was indisputable that wearing the cross visibly did not have any detrimental effect on Ms. Eweida’s ability to do her job.”

Dingemans said British Airways said it would only allow the wearing of religious items if it accepted that doing so was “a mandatory scriptural requirement.”

He said Eweida had never maintained that wearing a cross was such a requirement, “but it was of great importance to her to be able to wear it visibly.”

(When Eweida refused to cover the cross she was sent home on unpaid leave. Britain’s National Secular Society praised the airline’s action, accusing Eweida of clearly being “motivated by a wish to evangelize at work.” Almost a year later British Airways changed its policy and allowed her to return to work, but refused to pay her the salary, pension and benefits she had lost during her suspension.)

‘Health and safety’ risk

Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, was prohibited from working at a public hospital after refusing to cover up a cross she said she had worn at work throughout a 30-year nursing career. An employment tribunal ruled in favor of her health trust employer, saying its policy was based on health and safety grounds, not religion, and adding that wearing a cross was not a requirement for Christians.

Chaplin’s counsel, Paul Diamond, said his client had worn the cross ever since her confirmation in 1971, and in three decades of working as a nurse it had never posed a danger to a patient. The employer had presented no evidence of a health and safety risk.

Diamond also represented McFarlane, the fired relationship counselor, who he said had struggled to find a job in the sector after having been dismissed for gross misconduct on the grounds of sexual discrimination – effectively labeling him as a “homophobe.”

Legal counsel for Ladele, Dinah Rose, told the court that, contrary to Eadie’s assertions about employees wanting to force their employers to change work conditions, in Ladele’s case she had already been working as a marriage registrar for years before the law changed to give same-sex couples similar legal rights to married couples under civil partnership provisions.

The European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), an affiliate of the American Center for Law and Justice, acted as an intervener in the Ladele and McFarlane cases, and ECLJ director Gregor Puppinck also advised Eweida in the hearing.

Puppinck said this week that the British government’s ultimate argument was that the applicants’ “freedom of religion is respected because they are free to resign and to practice their religion in private.”

Apart from the fact that some of the applicants were not “free” to resign as they had already been fired, he said, the argument was also a manifestation of the “trend to transform freedom of religion into a mere freedom of worship.”

“This relapse of religious freedom to a freedom to worship is a step back to the level of freedom afforded to religious minorities in countries, such as Islamic and communist countries, where Christians are only permitted to worship in private,” Puppinck said.

The ECHR will hand down its rulings in the four cases on Tuesday, January 15.