European Court Rejects Appeal of 3 Christians Who Claimed Workplace Discrimination

May 29, 2013 - 3:42 AM

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The European Court of Human Rights said health and safety considerations were more important that the right of a Christian nurse to wear a cross visibly at work. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Christians voiced concern and secularists celebrated Tuesday after Europe’s top human rights court ended a lengthy legal battle brought by three British Christians who claimed workplace discrimination because of their beliefs – including Christian views on marriage.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, turned down a request by the trio for rulings it made early this year to be referred for reconsideration to its final decision-making body, the “grand chamber.”

In a battle pitting religious conscience against other legal and regulatory considerations, the ECHR decided in January that Britain had not violated the rights of Shirley Chaplin, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele under the European Convention on Human Rights. That ruling is now final.

Chaplin, a nurse on a geriatrics ward at a public hospital, claimed her rights had been violated when her employer prohibited her from wearing a small cross visibly at work.

McFarlane, an employee with a national sexual and relationship counseling organization, was fired for “gross misconduct on the grounds of sexual discrimination,” over a dispute about providing counseling to same-sex couples.

Ladele, a local government marriage registrar, objected to conducting civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples, and said she was forced to resign as a result.

The ECHR ruled in January that their right to freedom of conscience and religion had not been violated.

It said the employers’ reason for asking Chaplin to remove her cross – namely, the protection of health and safety – was “inherently more important” than her being allowed to bear witness to her faith by wearing the symbol visibly at work.

Chaplin’s legal counsel had told the court that his client had worn the cross ever since her confirmation in 1971, and that in three decades of working as a nurse it had never posed a danger to a patient.

In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane, the court ruled that in disciplining them, their employers had been “pursuing a policy of nondiscrimination against service-users.” It added that “the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation was also protected under the [European Convention on Human Rights].”

While it decided against the trio in January the court did rule in favor of a fourth applicant. Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian and British Airways staffer at London’s Heathrow Airport, was told by her employer to remove or cover up a small cross she wears on a chain around her neck.

In her case the court found that her rights had been violated, because fellow employees of other faiths had been allowed to wear religious items, including hijabs and turbans. Eweida was awarded 2,000 euros ($2,570) in non-pecuniary damages and 30,000 euros ($38,565) for costs and expenses.

Ladele, one of the three who lost their appeal request this week, was supported financially in her legal battle by the Christian Institute, a nondenominational British charity.

A Christian Institute spokesman expressed disappointment at the outcome, saying the decision “just confirms our fears that people with Christian beliefs about marriage will be penalized in the workplace.”

“Human rights laws are supposed to stop the power of the state being used to penalize people for their beliefs and opinions, particularly when those beliefs challenge the prevailing orthodoxy,” he said. “The government has been saying people who have Christian beliefs about marriage will be protected by human rights laws, but today’s decision shows that is a hollow promise.”

Ladele had been working as a marriage registrar for years before the law changed in 2005 to give same-sex couples similar legal rights to married couples under civil partnership provisions.

She was then informed that she would be required to officiate same-sex ceremonies but she refused to sign an amended work contract to that effect.

A disciplinary hearing concluded that if she refused to comply she would be violating the employer’s equality and diversity policy and her contract could be terminated.

All four cases landed up before the ECHR after going through the British legal system and being dismissed by the courts there. In the case before the judges in Strasbourg the British government was supported by the National Secular Society (NSS), a group that campaigns against what it calls “the disproportionate influence of religion on governments and in public life.”

The NSS on Tuesday welcomed the court’s decision to reject the Chaplin, Ladele and McFarlane cases.

“We hope that this will now draw a line under the attempts by a small coterie of Christian activists to obtain special privileges for themselves which would invariably come at the expense of other people’s rights,” said the group’s executive director, Keith Porteous Wood.

“The principle of equality for all, including for religious believers, is now established and they should stop wasting the time of the courts with these vexatious cases.”

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