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Strasbourg to hear religious-discrimination cases

31 August 2012


"Discrimination": Shirley Chaplin lost her job over her refusal to remove a cross worn round her neck

"Discrimination": Shirley Chaplin lost her job over her refusal to remove a cross worn round her neck

THE European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, will next week hear the cases of four British people who claim that they lost their jobs as a result of discrimination against their Christian beliefs.

Two of the cases concern the right to manifest religious belief, and whether this extends to wearing a cross or crucifix in the workplace. The other two concern the "clash of rights" that occurs when legislation and rules designed to ensure equality for gay men and lesbians is said to conflict with other people's rights to manifest their religious belief that homosexual practice is sinful.

Shirley Chaplin, who worked as a nurse with the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust ( News, 9 April 2010), and Nadia Eweida, who worked at a check-in desk for British Airways at Heathrow Airport ( News, 11 January 2008), both lost their jobs over their refusal to remove a cross worn around the neck. The pair both claim that they had worn their crosses for years, and that their jewellery became apparent only when their respective employers changed the design of their uniforms.

Lillian Ladele was working as a registrar with Islington Council when civil partnerships were introduced. The council originally agreed that she did not have to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, as other staff were available to do them (News, 18 July 2008); but they changed their stance after complaints from homosexual registrars that, by refusing to register civil partnerships, she was acting contrary to the council's equality policies.

Gary McFarlane was employed by the Avon branch of the national charity Relate to provide relationship counselling for both homosexual and heterosexual couples. He had begun a sex-therapy course; but he was dismissed over the charity's concerns that his Christian beliefs would prevent his providing sex therapy to gay couples ( News, 4 December 2009).

All four took their cases to employment tribunals, where Ms Ladele initially won her case before it was overturned by the Employment Appeals Tribunal. Mrs Chaplin, Ms Eweida, and Mr McFarlane all lost their cases. The Court of Appeal dismissed Ms Eweida's case, and she was refused permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, The Sunday Telegraph reported that the Government was opposing the cases, and that, in its official response to Strasbourg, it had said: "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." Despite this, the Prime Minister last month told the Commons that Christians should be allowed to wear crosses in the workplace ( News, 13 July).

In a statement this week, the Home Office said: "We believe people should have the right to wear the cross - or other religious symbols - at work. . . Our law strikes the right balance between employees' rights to express their beliefs, and the needs of employers to run their business."

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has intervened in the cases. It says that, in the cases of Mrs Chaplin and Ms Eweida, the English courts "may not have given sufficient weight to Article 9(2) of the Convention [the freedom to manifest religious beliefs]"; but that, in the cases of Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane, the courts "came to the correct conclusions".

The EHRC had originally suggested that a test of "reasonable accommodation" could be applied to the cases. This would have allowed other registrars to conduct civil partnerships in the Ladele case. The EHRC later amended its position, after a public consultation.

Earlier this year, the all-party group Christians in Parliament said that more thought should be given to the "reasonable accommodation" concept, in a report published in response to publicity surrounding the cases. It found that religious belief was being "gently squeezed" from public life, but that Christians did not face persecution ( News, 2 March).

The General Synod resolved last month that it was "the calling of Christians to order and govern our lives in accordance with the teaching of holy scripture, and to manifest our faith in public life as well as in private".

Human-rights dialogue. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has announced a series of "open dialogues" on the application of equality and human-rights laws on religion.

The seminars, it said, followed research carried out by the London Metropolitan University for the Commission, which examined religion or belief in the workplace and public services, and found "tensions between some religious and secular views on equality and human-rights law in these settings".

Question of the Week: Is Strasbourg the right place to make decisions about religious discrimination in the UK? 


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