I see that Mr Cameron has tweeted that he is “delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld.” The genial Eric Pickles said that he too is delighted. They were referring, of course, to the judgment in which, by a majority of five to two, judges of the European Court of Human Rights have supported the claim of Nadia Eweida, a BA check-in clerk, who was sent home in November 2006 for refusing to remove a small silver crucifix, that this was a violation of her rights.
But what about the three Christians whose claims were rejected by the court? Cameron and Pickles have said nothing about them: nor, in most reports that I heard, did the BBC (later they mentioned them in passing). The court ruled against Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was told to remove a crucifix necklace at work. The judges said Chaplin’s employer banned necklaces for health and safety grounds, so asking her to remove the symbol was not excessive: though how this argument could be seriously upheld, when after a nursing career of 30 years not a single incident has occurred remotely involving her crucifix in either health or safety, beats me.
The judges also rejected the claims of Lillian Ladele, a local authority registrar who said her Christian faith prevented her from overseeing same-sex civil partnerships, and marriage counselor Gary McFarlane, who refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples. In both cases, the court argued that employers had been entitled to strike a balance between claimants’ rights to manifest their religious beliefs and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination. Freedom of religion, they piously intoned, is “an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies … However, where an individual’s religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made.”
But exactly how does refusing to conduct a same-sex civil partnership ceremony, or refusing to give sex therapy to gay couples, impinge on anyone’s rights? There are plenty of registrars prepared to carry out this procedure: and the couples involved would have been quite unaware even of Lilian Ladele’s existence, let alone of her views on civil partnerships. As for giving “sex therapy” to gay couples, how on earth would a heterosexual person know how to do that? And would a gay couple having difficulties in that department really want the advice of someone so totally unqualified to give it? Would a heterosexual couple want the advice of a gay sex therapist? So why did Relate fire Gary McFarlane in the first place?
And why exactly aren’t David Cameron and Eric Pickles supporting them? Even in the case of Nadia Eweida, are we not entitled to doubt their entire sincerity? If Cameron, in particular, is so keen on religious liberty, whatever happened to his promise to legislate to protect them—yet another promise which has not been and probably will not be kept. And more to the point, why were government lawyers sent to Strasbourg to argue against all four claimants, including Nadia Eweida? This is what James Eadie QC, Cameron’s Government’s expensive barrister, told the court (on his behalf): that the refusal to allow an NHS nurse and a British Airways worker to visibly wear a crucifix at work “did not prevent either of them practicing religion in private”, which would be protected by human rights law. He argued that a Christian facing problems at work with religious expression needed to consider their position and that they were not discriminated against if they still have the choice of leaving their job and finding new employment (my italics).
“There are,” he went on, “two aspects to this part of the argument. Firstly, resigning and moving to another job and, second, there is clear and consistent jurisprudence that the person who asserts religious rights may on occasion have to take account of their position.”
Isn’t that what Cameron really thinks? Believe what you like: but if your employers don’t like you making it clear that you have beliefs you expect to be respected, forget it? Shirley Chaplin was moved away from nursing to a clerical role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after refusing to remove a necklace bearing a crucifix and then fired completely, after 30 years of nursing. “It is insulting, humiliating and degrading,” she said when her case was first taken to the European court: she then said, Mr Cameron please note, “My Christian faith isn’t something that you put on and then take off to go to work.”
But isn’t that exactly what Cameron really thinks she ought to do, whatever he tweets? David Davis said at the time that “the idea that British citizens are not free to express their faith in the workplace is an extraordinary and oppressive interpretation of the law.” Cameron claimed to agree. “What we will do,” Cameron told the House of Commons in July, “is that if it turns out that the law has the intention of banning the display of religious symbols in the workplace, as has come out in this case” (and as has now been confirmed, in the case of Shirley Chaplin), “then we will change the law and make clear that people can wear religious symbols at work.” Well, according to the law as it has emerged, that isn’t clear at all now.
So, Mr Cameron: when are you going to do what you said you would do? When are you going to legislate, to make it “clear”?
Me, I’m not holding my breath.
This column first appeared January 16, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.