In recent years a number of cases have gone to court involving Christians who claim they have been victims of discrimination. Often the decisions against these Christians have been upheld, the cumulative effect of which has been to give rise to the suspicion that Christians are being treated unfairly under the law.
Four such people have now appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. You can read the BBC report here, and for sure the outcomes will be important.
When these stories first hit the headlines in 2009/10, I went to interview Shami Chakrabarti, Diretor of Liberty, who had played a role in most of these cases. You can read my reflections on that meeting, and watch the interview by clicking on No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish.
The question is, how will these cases go in the European Court?
The case of Nadia Eweida, who was suspended by British Airways in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross was then, and is now, ridiculous. Especially so when one considers that Muslims and Sikh members of BA staff could, at that same time, openly wear religious dress and symbols as part of their clothing. (BA argued that a cross was not a normal expression of being a Christian!) Interestingly, though some Christians think of Shami Chakrabarti as being anti-Christian, Liberty actively supported Nadia Eweida.
As a result BA changed its uniform policy to allow for the open wearing of all religious symbols, including crosses, but it would not admit that the original policy was unlawful and therefore refused to pay Ms Eweida for the three months she was suspended from work. The issue for the court therefore is not whether she can now wear a cross (she can) but whether BA’s initial refusal was illegal. If the courts decide BA did not act illegally, it leaves open to BA or any other employer to make arbitrary rules prohibiting religious symbols.
I doubt if the court will support the legality of BA’s initial decision, but we’ll see. In the meantime Christina Patterson in a brilliant article in The Independent points out the delicious irony that the lawyers defending this case come from a Government led by a Prime Minister who declared “we are a Christian country and should not be afraid to say so.”
Shirley Chaplin’s case is equally as ridiculous as it is indefensible. Ms Chaplin was moved to a desk job by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital because she too wanted to wear a cross. The Trust wanted her to wear it so it wasn’t visible, on Health and Safety grounds. Surely, one might think, they would be better focusing on hand-washing to eradicate MRSA rather than argue somewhat improbably that one day a patient might be killed by… what? A cross falling off a chain? I don’t think so.
Gary McFarlane, the third member of the group is a relationship counselor who was sacked by Relate after saying that he might have a conscientious objection to giving sex therapy advice to gay couples. This takes us into more difficult territory. Irrespective of one’s views about homosexuality, the fact is that gay people have long fought for equal rights under the law. Having won those rights, they are entitled to be treated equally.
In reality however there was no practical reason to sack Mr McFarlane. No gay couple would have been deprived of advice as other counselors were available but Relate chose not to make any accommodation for Mr McFarlane’s views. This is a common theme – one of an unwillingness to seek an accommodation. Mr McFarlane was in effect being told ‘your conscience has no place here’. (Read here for an example of a company that did reach an accommodation in a similar case)
So whilst I wholly support the view that gay people should not be discriminated against, it seems a pity that no effort to reach an ‘accommodation’ or a compromise was explored. Some will ask, quite rightly, where is the evidence Christians are willing to ‘accommodate’ gay people? That’s a strong argument and in the court of public opinion, Christians as a group would be found guilty as charged.
But a position that says conscience has no part to play in the public space is worrying. For example, such a ‘no conscience’ ruling could have implications for nurses and doctors who have been able to say for some time that they wish to have no role in abortions.
So this case is harder to call. My hunch is that Relate will win.
And finally there is the case of Registrar Lilian Ladele, who was disciplined after she refused, on grounds of conscience, to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in Islington. The initial objection was lodged by gay members of Islington staff who felt victimised by her stance. Liberty would argue that to follow one’s conscience in a situation like this demands that you give up your job and fight for a change in the law, not that your employer needs to make special arrangements for you.
And, as I indicate above, I have some sympathy for this view, and believe these examples are not primarily a case of religious discrimination but rather a case of a democratic society passing laws that reflect its values. If Christians have a problem with those laws then our task is to work towards their change. I believe Islington Council’s position will be upheld.
Whilst these four cases have gone to the European Court of Human Rights together, I think the main focus will be on the latter two cases. And here my main concern is not that the decision will go one way or the other, but that Christians will again be portrayed as anti-gay.
Not for the first time the focus will be on the ethics of the bedroom. Jesus had far more to say about the ethics of the boardroom.