Do you have a right to express your religion or beliefs at work? Having trawled through much of the press coverage of the four Christians
who have taken their claims of religious discrimination to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), I can confidently say that I don’t know. As with a lot of the law, what may seem like a straightforward question doesn’t always have a straightforward answer.
After employment tribunals ruled against them, the four are taking their cases to the court in Strasbourg claiming that the law in the UK does not do enough to protect workers’ religious beliefs. This takes the implications beyond the personal and is a direct challenge to the law itself, meaning any change in the law or the way it has to be interpreted would apply to all UK organisations.
In commenting on the case of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways (BA) employee who was prevented from wearing a cross at work, the prime minister, David Cameron, has already pledged to introduce new protections at work for people wearing religious symbols. In support, fellow Conservative MP David Davis said ‘the idea that British citizens are not free to express their faith in the workplace is an extraordinary and oppressive interpretation of the law’.
I may not be an expert in this area but I am fairly sure they are both wrong. There is no blanket ban on religious symbols in the workplace; on the other hand I don’t think there is an absolute right to express your beliefs at work. It is, for example, perfectly reasonable for employers to impose no-jewellery policies or ban it on health and safety grounds.
As a confirmed, but now extremely-lapsed Christian, I was never told it was a requirement, or even desirable, for me to wear a cross and I certainly never regarded it as a vital expression of my faith. It therefore strikes me as unlikely that Christians could argue that not being allowed to wear the cross at work was an infringement of their human rights in the way it might be to refuse a Muslim woman the right to wear a headscarf.
But that is the basis of the argument of two of the cases going to Strasbourg, including that of Nadia Eweida. The other concerns Shirley Chaplin, a nurse banned from working on hospital wards for wearing a cross around her neck. All NHS acute trusts have rules about jewellery and it has nothing to do with restricting rights to express belief but everything to do with infection control and patient safety. For any experienced nurse, or for that matter employment lawyer, to suggest it is religious discrimination is absurd.
The church thinks this is unfair discrimination against Christians and complains far more sensitivity is shown to followers of other faiths. I don’t want to suggest majorities can’t be persecuted, but I find this a curious claim, given that in the UK Christians vastly outnumber adherents of all other faiths put together. The bishops should get on Google, it doesn’t take much effort to find examples of religious discrimination claims from other faiths, successful or otherwise.
At the risk of offending churchgoers everywhere, I have to say their attitude sounds like the sort you get from organisations and institutions declining in influence and struggling to find their relevance and place in a fast-changing society. Particularly because the number of religious discrimination cases remains low, at 940 out of 186,300 employment tribunal cases for 2011/12.
What may seem like a concerted campaign against Christians is far more likely to be disproportionate reporting by the press (how much coverage did you see of the nearly 11,000 sex discrimination cases last year?). As Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said:
The most likely victim of actual religious discrimination in British society is a Muslim, but the person who is most likely to feel slighted because of their religion is an evangelical Christian.
The other two cases being heard by the ECHR involve Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor who was sacked after he was unable to confirm he would be able to assist same-sex couples discuss sexual issues; and Lillian Ladele, disciplined by Islington Council for refusing to carry out civil partnerships for homosexual couples.
It is a bit odd that all four cases are being heard together since they aren't really the same (apart from all appearing to be about something other than religious discrimination). The issue of whether or not you should be allowed to wear a cross to work is hardly of the same consequence as whether certain employees should have the right to refuse to provide services to certain members of the public.
By supporting all four cases, it rather appears that the church is falling into the trap usually reserved for the likes of the tabloids: come up with a good headline to arouse outrage and indignation among your readers (followers) while carefully ignoring the other side of the story and, if at all possible, the facts.
Believe it or not, employers do sometimes have good reasons justifying their actions and most know it is unlawful to discriminate on any grounds when providing goods and services to the public. Fairly straightforward really, although to be fair to the church, even the new Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, once said anyone who ran a bed and breakfast in their home should ‘have the right’ to turn away gay couples (he did apologise when proved wrong).
A service to the public is a service to the public no matter where it’s provided. I can’t imagine Grayling would have even dreamt of suggesting it would be ok to turn away couples of a different race or colour. But this is the possible outcome of allowing one group or another to decide according to their conscience or religion to whom they will or won’t provide services.
It’s discrimination, plain and simple. You don’t have a ‘right’ to offer bed and breakfast from your home or to work as a counsellor or registrar. If you can’t fulfil the requirements of the job, find something else to do. More importantly, you can’t have a hierarchy of rights, with religious rights at the top, trumping everything else and allowing any religion (whatever that is) to decide when and how it can discriminate. We all have the same human rights, or we have none at all.