By Hilary White — Originally published in LifesiteNews.com
Critics are saying that for the first time, the British government has openly opposed the freedom of Christians to express their beliefs in public. In a case that has gone to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the government, led by the Conservative Party under David Cameron, will argue that Christians have no protected right to wear a cross or crucifix at work because it is not a “necessary” aspect of their religion.
The Sunday Telegraph revealed that ministers of the Foreign Office have issued a response to the case that says employers may fire employees who refuse to remove crosses.
Two British women, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, have taken a complaint to the ECHR and are fighting to establish the right of Christians to wear the cross at work without threat of disciplinary action. They argue that their rights to religious expression and freedom under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights have been violated. Article 9 says that a person has a right “in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
In its response, the government called the two women’s argument “manifestly ill-founded”.
“The Government submit that… the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not a manifestation of their religion or belief within the meaning of Article 9, and…the restriction on the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not an ‘interference’ with their rights protected by Article 9.”
“In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.”
Eweida’s case has made headlines in the UK since 2006 when the British Airways employee was told to remove the small cross she wore around her neck. She refused and was placed on unpaid leave. Her complaint of religious discrimination failed at the Court of Appeals, where Justice Stephen Sedley accused Eweida of having a “sectarian agenda”.
The uproar that resulted from the British Airways decision, however, caused the company to back down and change uniform rules to allow the wearing of crosses. Nevertheless, the lower court ruled in 2008 that British Airways had not acted in an unlawfully discriminatory fashion. The ruling also said that the symbols of other religions are unable to be concealed and are therefore acceptable.
Shirley Chaplin was a nurse of 31 years experience who was told by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust that she must remove the one-inch long crucifix she habitually wore at work. In April 2010, the Employment Tribunal made the same argument as the Foreign Office, telling Chaplain that she had no right to wear the cross to work because it was not a “requirement” of her faith. Mrs. Chaplin said that she was a victim of “politically correct” persecution, and pointed out that Muslims were allowed to wear headscarves without threat of the sack.
The case comes at a time of heightened tensions between Christians and the state, where equality legislation is being increasingly cited in cases against Christians, and highly placed religious leaders, as well as some parliamentarians, are warning of a growing bias against Christianity in public life.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, has blasted the decision of the government as another example of what he has called Christianity being formally “marginalised”.
Lord Carey said, “The reasoning is based on a wholly inappropriate judgment of matters of theology and worship about which they can claim no expertise.
“The irony is that when governments and courts dictate to Christians that the cross is a matter of insignificance, it becomes an even more important symbol and expression of our faith.”
Even Tory Party luminary and Mayor of London, the outspoken Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph this week that the government is backing the wrong side.
“Someone needs to march into their room, grab them by the lapels, and tell them not to be such confounded idiots,” he said.
Johnson said that he met with Eweida and “I can confirm that she is neither a religious nutter nor driven by vindictiveness.”
“She just wants the airline to accept that it was unfair and wrong, and the irony is that she has now been driven to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. And the further irony is that the British Government — a British Government whose individual members, if asked, would almost certainly agree that BA was loony in its decision — is now apparently backing that decision and opposing Mrs. Eweida.”
Referring to the Appeals Court ruling on Eweida’s complaint, Johnson called Sedley, “the most Left-wing judge of the past 50 years.”
“You should read his judgment, as a perfect example of how a brilliant mind, in the grip of strong ideological prejudice, can depart completely from common sense.”
A parliamentary group released a report last month that said there is a grave lack of “religious literacy” among Britain’s judges, politicians and officials. After a study of 33 cases in which Christians have come into conflict with the law or with employers, the report stated that Equality legislation, passed under the Labour government, had set the rights of different groups, notably Christians and homosexuals, in competition. In every case, the rights of homosexuals have taken precedence over those of Christians.
The report, titled Clearing the Ground, said that there is an “urgent” need for legislators and public officials to acquaint themselves with the realities of genuine Christian belief.
“Critically, early indications from court judgments are that sexual orientation takes precedence and religious belief is required to adapt in the light of this. We see this as an unacceptable and unsustainable situation…
“We have found that many of the issues raised in the inquiry stem from a deep-seated and widespread lack of understanding about the nature and outworking of religious belief.
“This ignorance works itself out in the way that laws are drafted, the judgments courts issue and the policies adopted by government departments and local authorities.”