CHRISTIANS cannot claim that they have suffered religious
discrimination at work if they have the freedom to resign and look
for another job, a British-government lawyer told the European
Court of Human Rights this week.
James Eadie QC made his comments as he
outlined the Government's position in four cases: those of Nadia
News, 11 January 2008) and Shirley Chaplin (
News, 10 April 2010), who claim that they lost their jobs with
British Airways (BA) and the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust
respectively, over their refusal to remove a cross or crucifix;
Lillian Ladele, a registrar with the London Borough of Islington,
who objected to being required to perform civil-partnership
9 January 2009); and Gary McFarlane (
News, 4 December 2009), who was dismissed from his position as
a counsellor with the Avon branch of Relate, after his supervisors
said that his religious beliefs would prevent him offering
psychosexual counselling to same-sex couples (
News, 31 August).
Mr Eadie said: "In a free and
democratic society, everybody has the right to express and manifest
their beliefs, including to display religious symbols or to live
out their beliefs on family values motivated by the teaching of
faiths; but these are not absolute rights or rights without
He argued: "If an employer requires or
prohibits conduct while at work that individual employees consider
is inconsistent with their religious beliefs, there is no
interference with Article Nine [of the European Convention on Human
Rights] where they can obtain alternative employment in which they
can practise their religion as they wish. . .
"All the applicants were able to
manifest their religious belief in many ways outside the
professional sphere," he said. "The court's jurisprudence is clear
that employees are free to resign if they consider that the
requirements of their employment are incompatible with their
This ability to resign, he argued,
"guarantees freedom of religion".
Dinah Rose QC, representing Ms Ladele,
challenged the Government's position, saying it justified
state-sponsored anti-Semitism: "The logical implication of the
Government's assertion is the rather startling one that a state
employer could have a policy of refusing to employ practising Jews
and say that was not a violation if other employers were prepared
to employ them."
James Dingemans QC, representing Ms
Eweida, said: "There is nothing in the wording of Article Nine
which justifies the Government's approach that [your rights] stop
the moment you cross the threshold of work. If 80 per cent of our
lives is spent working, what value is a right that ceases the
moment you cross the threshold?"
The Government also argued that
Christians had no right to wear a cross or crucifix, saying that
the Convention applied only to acts that were part of a "scriptural
command or teaching".
"There was no question about the
importance of the cross as a Christian symbol," Mr Eadie argued,
but "not every act or behaviour falls within the protective sphere
of Article Nine. Acts are protected only if they are a practice;
and only if the practice is generally recognised as such by the
When challenged by Judge Nicolas
Bratza, one of eight human-rights judges hearing the cases, Mr
Eadie said that an applicant need not establish that the action was
a formal requirement; merely that it was a "generally accepted form
of the religion".
Mr Dingemans told the court that BA's
policy at the time was that religious items could be worn only if
they were a "mandatory scriptural requirement". "BA considered that
that condition was fulfilled in the case of items such as the
hijab or turban, but was not fulfilled in the case of the
"In that latter respect, Ms Eweida has
never sought to suggest that wearing a cross, visibly, is a
mandatory scriptural requirement, but it was, nevertheless, of
great importance for her to be able to wear it, visibly, and she
found the requirement to conceal it, while sitting next to
colleagues allowed to wear other religious symbols, an insult to
her Christianity and to her."
The judges will consider the numerous
submissions, including formal written interventions from the
Bishops of Chester and of Blackburn; the former Archbishop of
Canterbury, Lord Carey; and a retired Bishop of Rochester, Dr
Michael Nazir-Ali. Submissions were also made by the Equalities and
Human Rights Commission, and the human-rights charity Liberty.
Judgment is not expected in the cases
for several months.
Responses to the
cases. The Prime Minister has been accused of hypocrisy
over the Government's stance. Mr Cameron has publicly offered his
support for the four, describing the wearing of a cross as a "vital
religious freedom". He told Parliament in July: "If it turns out
that the law has the intention as it has come out in this case, we
will change the law, and make clear that people can wear religious
emblems at work."
Speaking on Tuesday, the director of
the Christian Legal Centre, Andrea Minichiello Williams, a member
of the General Synod, said: "The Government's double-standards in
their handling of these four cases has been astonishing. The Prime
Minister . . . has been asked to back up the statements he has made
in public. . . He has failed dismally," she said.
The executive director of the National
Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, said: "Any further
accommodation of religious conscience in UK equality law would
create a damaging hierarchy of rights, with religion trumping all.
Any change to the law to increase religious accommodation stands
the risk of seriously undermining UK equality law."
The chief executive of the British
Humanist Association, Andrew Copson, speaking on Sky News, said
that the cases were the result of an "increasingly strident
"Cases like this, which ought to be
sorted out in a sensible common-sense way on the ground, are being
used to whip up a narrative of persecution, which is really a
fig-leaf for an attempt to increase the visibility of privilege of
religion in public life."