Religions’ role in our secular society



Last week, four Christians claimed that they were unfairly discriminated in their workplaces because of their religious beliefs, and have taken their case to the European Courts of Human Rights (ECHR), the highest ruling court in Europe.

The case is particularly interesting as it reveals the tension which arises when religious and secular values conflict.

Four of the two Christians include two women Nadia Ewedia 49, a former British Airways worker from Twickenham, London and Shirley Chaplain 56, a former nurse at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS trust. Both women left their respective jobs after their employers had told them to remove their necklace with a cross whilst at work. After taking their cases to UK Employment Tribunals, both cases were dismissed. Gary McFarlane 51, a relationship advisor was sacked by Relate after stating that he wouldn’t give advice to same sex couples due to his Christian belief on homosexuality. McFarlane was later dismissed for gross misconduct in March 2008. His appeal was also dismissed by an Employment Tribunal.

Lilian Ladele 43, a former marriage registrar for Islington Council, refused to conduct civil partnerships when they were legalised in 2004. Miss Ladele then decided to work on a freelance basis so she could decide what ceremonies she conducted, however the council changed the ruling concerning marriage registrar conditions and Miss Ladele was dismissed.

Ladele said that the council was asking her to choose between her religious beliefs and her job, and was being accused of homophobia. She took the council to an employment tribunal in 2008 which found that she had been harassed; however the ruling was later on reversed. Since then Ladele has taken her case to the ECHR.

Prominent supporters for the four Christians taking their case to the ECHR include Michael Nazir Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester. He called on the European Court of Human Rights to protect religious freedom saying,

“it has a pre-eminent place in European society”

and needs to

“overturn the increasing attack on the religious liberties of Christians in the UK.”

The lawyers of Chaplin and Ewadia, who are lawyers from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, told the court that in relation to the workers, employers should,

"expect to accommodate expression of religion."

Citing Article 9 in the European Convention of Human Rights which reads,

“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.”

However, James Eadie QC, acting for the government, told the European court that the refusal to allow them to visibly wear a crucifix at work,

“did not prevent either of them practicing religion in private”.

He argued that,

“There is a difference between the professional sphere where your religious freedoms necessarily abut onto and confront other interests and the private sphere. The employees concerned could indeed pursue all the generally recognised manifestations of their religion outside the work sphere.”

The QC also told the court that, unlike the Muslim headscarf for women, wearing a cross is not a “generally recognised” act of Christian worship and is not required by scripture. He said,

“A great many Christians do not insist on wearing crosses at all, still less visibly.” 

The National Secular Society (NSS) which campaigns against "religious privilege" said a European court ruling in favour of the four would undermine UK equality law.

Commenting on a possible victory for the four, Director of the NSS, Keith Porteous Wood said,

"We think that if it goes the wrong way it will cause a hierarchy of right, with religion at the top, and it's going to be bad news for employers and for gay people."

In the weeks to follow, a judgement will be made by the ECHR in this landmark case.

What do you think?

Have the British Courts failed to protect Christian values? Is this a health and safety matter and nothing to do with protection of religious values? As seen with Muslim and Sikh professionals, religious clothing is permitted, so the same ‘accommodations’ could be made for Christians? Should the private and public sphere be kept separate in a secular society?

By Joseph Adewunmi and Francine Fernandes

Archived Comments

We've changed to a new commenting system - comments below are preserved for archive purposes

Religious values must always come second to secular ones

We'll never have a fair and just society unless we embrace a secular one. Secularism ensures people are free to practice but not impose their beliefs on others. Remove that and religious extremists of all faith will fight harder to attack other faiths. Where that will lead will be a backlash against all the UK is majority non faith orientated now. Think about how that situation would work for those with faith from a bme community...


Being raised in a devout Christian family and having attended Christian schools / college I can say with certainty that the wearing of cross necklaces is not considered as an essential part of the observation of Christianity.

They are nowhere near as fundamental / important to religious observance as say a Turban to a Sikh. They have never been promoted as a vital, important, or even preferential expression of devotion.

They are akin to a necklace with a Star of David for a Jew, or a bracelet with Sikh Khanda emblem. An individual choice, which for what it's worth I wouldn't be too concerned about if were an employer.

The authors seem to infer that they can be equated with a turban or hijab, and that the courts merely acquiesced in the case of Sikhs and Muslims, and could do for Christians. To be fair, they did so in the form of a question, so I guess I should cut them some legal slack (i.e. in the eyes of the law, Sikhs are a distinct ethnic group, Christians are not).

That said the question is based on a false premise. OBV has itself covered cases where such 'accomodations' have not been made in the way the article suggests. The House of Lords ruling that Shabina Begum was not entitled to wear a jilbab to school being an example.

Finally, there is a huge dose of irony in framing this as a tension between religious and secular values. The irony being that in order for there to be such a tension it would require an abandonment of the Christian value of not imposing your values and ethics! This is something the relationship advisor and registrar clearly have done.

Mind you, they have made a claim of discrimination against their employers because they were barred from discriminating against others. So I guess irony must be another of their strongly held beliefs.

Religions’ role in our secular society

As a Sikh (albeit not a fully fledged 'Amritdhari' (initiated) one, I still support the right of anyone wearing a symbol of their faith in public sphere as it does no one any harm.

Someone simply wearng a cross will not force people of other faiths or none to take up Christianity as a faith so why the hang-up? Further, where will it end? Will we in Britain be like the obnoxious French militant secularists where all religions are disrespected equally? Will we be asked to take down the crosses from the Churches because they are in a public sphere?

Let me also clear up the notion that '...the courts merely acquiesced in the case of Sikhs...' , no, the courts did no such thing, Sikhs met the provisions of the law and the courts simply corrected the anomoly.

As for irony, it seems that the seculrists are denying the people of faith the very thing they themselves crave for - freedom of expression.

Unless anyone from the secularists can explain what exactly is offensive about peope wearing the symbol of their faith in public, I together with others who are miffed by this mindset may be excused in thinking that a popular term used by one of our elected leaders recently may apply to those wanting to deny people of faith the right to show their beliefs in public - no prizes for guessing the term but a clue is that it was hurridly retracted.