Today was the day that the ECHR published its verdicts on the four Christians who had claimed that their human rights had been violated by their employers preventing them from acting in ways conducive to their faith. The four cases were as follows:
Nadia Eweida works as a check-in assistant from British Airways. She wanted to wear a cross necklace visibly at work and BA said that all jewellery had to be concealed. BA have since changed this uniform policy to allow staff to display symbols of faith.
Shirley Chaplin was a nurse who was asked not to wear her cross necklace by the hospital where she worked. They said that it was a health and safety issue as the cross could be grabbed by a patient.
Lillian Ladele was a registrar for Islington Borough Council. She refused to carry out civil partnership ceremonies as her church does not condone homosexuality.
Gary McFarlane was a relationship counsellor who was sacked when he refused to give sex therapy guidance to same-sex couples.
All four took their cases to the ECHR after failing to get satisfaction from various UK employment tribunals.
The ECHR upheld Ewieda’s complaint, but overturned all of the others. This seems to me to be an eminently sensible solution. In reaching the decision, the court weighed the human rights of the complainants (i.e. their freedom to follow and express their religion) against other factors.
In the case of Ewieda the court decided that there was no real reason for her not to wear a cross necklace at work. As I said above, BA had already changed their uniform rules in line with this long before the ruling was published.
In the case of Chaplin the court decided that the health and safety issues raised by the hospital outweighed her freedom to express her religion. In other words, your freedom to express your religion can be restricted if it could cause a danger to others or to yourself.
In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane the court decided that the equality issues outweighed their rights to express their religion. It’s important that everyone can expect equal service from their local council and their relationship counsellor so it’s acceptable for an employer to take action against an employee who feels unable to offer their services on an equal basis to all customers. In other words, your freedom to follow your religion can be restricted if it makes you unable to conform to equality legislation.
I think this is an important and useful ruling. It’s basically saying that if your religious beliefs are at odds with the law then you’d better leave them behind when you enter the public arena. It also says that, yes, you have freedom to practise your religion but that there is a hierarchy of human rights and that this one is pretty near the bottom of the pile. Don’t expect it to survive a confrontation with just about any other human right.
Over the weekend a large group of Catholics wrote to the Telegraph saying that the proposed equal marriage laws could threaten their religious freedom. When I tweeted about that letter, I (semi-)joked that I couldn’t really see a problem with that. We can now see that the ECHR agrees with me – society’s demand for equality will trump religion’s demand for bigotry. And that is, of course, exactly how it should be in a civilised country.
One other interesting point about this story is the way that much of the media has reported it. To take a couple of examples, the BBC headline is “British Airways Christian employee Nadia Eweida wins case” and the Daily Mail’s (which seems to be in a state of flux) is currently “Christian British Airways employee tells of joy as after European court finds she DID suffer discrimination over silver cross”. In both cases the editor has ignored the majority of the decisions and focused on the complaint that was upheld. Of course, both stories go on to mention the other cases, but if you read the comments you’ll see that both stories seem to have a large proportion of readers who haven’t got beyond the headline before commenting and don’t realise that this isn’t the victory for Christianity that they seem to assume.
I see this as a victory for secularism. You can believe and do whatever you think your religion wants to believe or do but if those beliefs and action clash with what society expects, you will lose.