Christians take 'beliefs' fight to European Court of Human Rights

Nadia Eweida BA worker Nadia Eweida was sent home after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross

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Four British Christians who claim they lost their jobs as a result of discrimination against their beliefs are taking their cases to the European Court of Human Rights.

They include an airline worker stopped from wearing a cross and a registrar who did not want to marry gay couples.

All four lost separate employment tribunals relating to their beliefs.

Secular critics have said a ruling in favour of the group could "seriously undermine" UK equality law.

A ruling is not expected from the European court for several weeks.

The cases involve:

  • Nadia Eweida, a Pentecostal Christian from Twickenham, south-west London, who was sent home by her employer British Airways in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross
  • Devon-based nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was moved to a desk job by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital for similar reasons
  • Gary McFarlane, a Bristol relationship counsellor, who was sacked by Relate after saying on a training course he might have had a conscientious objection to giving sex therapy advice to gay couples
  • Registrar Lilian Ladele, who was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London

Each individual had made a separate application to the court, but the cases are being heard together.

Miss Eweida's lawyer, James Dingemans, said her employer had permitted other religious symbols to be worn.

He said: "She was working alongside colleagues who were able to wear religious symbols and attire including the Sikh turban, the Sikh bracelet, the Muslim hijab, and the Jewish skull cap.

"It was indisputable that wearing the cross visibly did not have any detrimental effect on Miss Eweida's ability to do her job."

But a lawyer for the government, James Eadie, said employees' rights have to be limited in order to protect the rights of others.

He said: "These four linked cases at their core raise questions about the rights, and the limits to the rights, of employees to force their employers to alter employment conditions, so as to accommodate the employees' religious practices.


British courts have found overwhelmingly against Christians, occasionally comparing their beliefs unfavourably with secular principles.

Now the issue has reached the top of the legal process, and, by making this an oral hearing, the European Court is clearly troubled by it and taking it very seriously.

Its findings will constitute a watershed moment in what has become a slow-acting, but profound, social change.

Attention will focus especially on the ruling in the cases where Christians claim they faced discrimination by being forced to provide services to gay people despite their belief that homosexual practice was wrong.

It seems likely that, whatever is decided in Strasbourg, Christians will soon have the right to wear crosses at work, but the judgement on their beliefs about homosexuality will be far-reaching.

"My submission will be that the court's jurisprudence is clear and consistent, it is to this effect the convention protects individuals' rights to manifest their religion outside their professional sphere.

"However, that does not mean that in the context of his or her employment an individual can insist on being able to manifest their beliefs in any way they choose. Other rights, other interests are in play and are to be respected."

'Right to religion'

Court documents explained that Miss Eweida and Mrs Chaplin believed the UK law has "failed adequately to protect their right to manifest their religion" which is contrary to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This article provides a right to freedom of religion, including to worship, teaching, practice and observe elements of their faith.

They also claim that previous tribunal rulings have breached Article 14 of the convention, which outlaws discrimination based on religion.

Miss Ladele also believed her right to an "effective remedy" was infringed, and Mr McFarlane claimed his right to a fair trial and right to a private life in the UK were breached.

Earlier this year, the UK's equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the UK tribunals had come to the correct conclusion in the cases of Miss Ladele and Mr McFarlane.

But it conceded that the courts "may not have given sufficient weight" to Article 9.

Andrew Marsh, campaign director at religious group Christian Concern, whose sister organisation Christian Legal Centre is supporting Mrs Chaplin and Mr McFarlane, told the BBC the four could have had their beliefs respected by their employers without adversely affecting the people they serve.

"The crucial question in these cases is this: could these four individuals have been reasonably accommodated and their Christian faith respected, without detriment or damage to the rights of others - and the answer to that question is clearly yes.

"Each of them could have been reasonably accommodated without there ever being any danger of risk, significant risk to others or indeed of anyone who is entitled to a service being denied that service."

However, the National Secular Society - which campaigns against "religious privilege" - said a European court ruling in favour of the quartet would undermine UK equality law.

Society director, Keith Porteous Wood, said the group was fighting the action: "We think that if it goes the wrong way it will cause a hierarchy of right, with religion at the top, and it's going to be bad news for employers and for gay people."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 648.

    What are these people doing at court? Surely Mathew 7.1 applies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 647.

    Save for Sikh turbans, I prefer my airline service to be without religious accoutrements.
    The turban may advertise a religion but it is a necessary item of clothing, given the uncut hair of Sikhs.
    Other apparel, such as skull caps and crosses, are not.
    Insisting on wearing unnecessary religious adverts suggests a degree of intolerance which makes me uncomfortable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 646.

    Surely if you have no religious beliefs, then a scarf is a scarf, a necklace a necklace a star a star, etc - so how can you be offended by it if it means nothing to you? Reduce the argument to 'I don't like your scarf' and it begins to reveal the absurdity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 645.

    Over the whole burqa/crucifix comparison,

    It's a shame that some of you feel oppressed because your religion doesn't actually force you to wear something flashy and cool that annoys people. Maybe in your next incarnation you'll be born into one that does.

    In the meantime, Christianity does not require people to wear the cross at all times, so stop acting like there's any equivalence there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 644.

    If a religious symbol ( eg cross on chain) is out of sight and where it can't be a danger fine. Otherwise people should conform to dress codes, which are often there for very good reasons, not insist on special rights because of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. As for refusing to do something that's part of your job, that's simply not acceptable, nor is dumping bits you dislike on others..

  • rate this

    Comment number 643.

    When I was ini employment with a large UK telecoms company I was ordained as a priest. I was told that I was not to wear a clerical collar at work, even though I had not suggested I intended to. When I appealed on principle I had negative comments made in my appraisal. Later when it was no longer a problem my collar was airbrushed out of an official poster by my boss in Equal Opportunities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 642.

    Religion is a ridiculous superstition, based on ignorant pre-medieval values, and with no evidence to support its validity. Christianity is intellectually comparable to witch craft or voodoo.

    Being homophobic isn't acceptable in modern society; Christianity and other religions are clearly homophobic. Therefore it is right to stop people displaying offensive religious symbols at work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 641.

    Nazis requiring SS members to be humanists??!!?? I don't think so, they were hand in glove with the church. Just ask former Hitler Youth member Joseph Ratzinger (aka the pope)

  • rate this

    Comment number 640.

    It's a great country we live in, a christian country not that I am religious have to give way to other religions. Muslims are give time off work to pray and we allow other religions to wear what they like but not christian symbols. The comment by the government lawyer says it all, if your christian you have no rights as it might infringe persons religious rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 639.

    To paraphrase the late Bill Hicks...Do you think if Jesus came back that he would want to see a cross?

  • rate this

    Comment number 638.

    No, the Dark Ages was when the Roman Catholic Church had total control of Europe, not Christianity.

  • Comment number 637.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 636.

    One of my best friends was born into a Hindu family bu does not practice the religion. I asked her a few things in the pub: why do hindus never moan? why don't hindus kill in the name of God? Why don't hindus persecute other faiths? why are hindus so successful? she said because the faith is old enough and strong enough to stand any attack. Muslims and Christians obviously feel threatened then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 635.

    "The two Christians who have discriminated against homosexuals are complaining that their right to discriminate is being discriminated against......"

    Top rated comment...even some christians on here can see the potential problem for their faith regardless of how the ruling goes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 634.

    A Christian thinks they have a right to wear a cross to express who they are.

    I was born in Austria but I don't expect to wear lederhosen when I go to work.

  • Comment number 633.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 632.

    Having been the only heterosexual male employee of a bar that was owned by and catered to ladies who preferred each others' company to that of men, the relationship dynamics were very much the same regardless of reproductive organs. On the other hand, a man who has not hosted parts of another man in various orifices, cannot relate to the experiences of a gay man. Please translate, "Ms. Benatar".

  • rate this

    Comment number 631.

    This would not happen to someone wearing a turbin or a hijab or veil. This country has gone mad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 630.

    This country has gone crazy - we are far too soft in this country and should be proud of our beliefs. Yet we allow ourselves to be imposed on by other religions. Absolute madness

  • rate this

    Comment number 629.

    607. Mr Max

    568. Philip C

    That's a two way argument. Atheists think their rules apply to us."
    What, the rule of law? Why would they not apply to you? you're not special that you can be exempt because you have an undemonstrable faith.
    Laws can and do change. People lobby for all kinds of changes all the time. Would you be so keen to uphold the law perhaps if you lived in North Korea?


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