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