Analysis: Milestone left in Christian-secular debate

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

image captionThe European Court of Human Rights said Nadia Eweida had suffered discrimination at work

At first there seemed to be good news for traditionalist Christians in the judgement from the European Court of Human Rights.

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in clerk who had been suspended by the company for insisting on wearing a small silver cross, had been vindicated.

The court had accepted that the UK government and courts had failed to protect her right to express her Christian faith, and she had even been awarded 6,000 euros in compensation and lost pay.

The judgement confirmed that wearing a cross was a legitimate way for Christians to express their religious beliefs.

It will make it that much harder for companies to introduce unreasonable restrictions on the wearing of Christian and other symbols of faith at work.

But that is more or less all traditionalist Christians can find to applaud in the judgement from Strasbourg.

Corporate image

For a start Ms Eweida's was something of a special case.

The court pointed out that her cross had been too "discreet" to stand any chance of damaging British Airways' corporate image, and the company had changed its uniform policy to allow such symbols shortly after the row anyway.

It turned down the appeal of Shirley Chaplin, a nurse from Exeter, whose employer had said the cross she wore was unhygienic.

The court said it was not in a position to judge the risk to health, but its finding suggests that if a company could reasonably demonstrate a risk to health and safety it would be able to prevent staff from wearing religious symbols.

The court's decisions in the cases of the remaining two Christians also seem to hand considerable discretion to employers to decide policies for providing services and to require their staff to abide by them whatever their religious beliefs.

Lillian Ladele was a registrar for Islington Council in London, but lost her job after she refused to preside over civil partnerships.

Reasonable policy

She was able to manage for some time by swapping tasks with colleagues who were happy to officiate at the same-sex ceremonies.

But after a complaint was made to the council, Ms Ladele was told she had to perform civil partnerships.

Gary McFarlane was sacked by Relate after he refused to counsel gay couples about their sexual relationships.

He had been advising homosexual people about their relationships for some time.

Both Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane had argued in Strasbourg for "reasonable accommodation" - a compromise in which an employer would find alternative staff without conflicting religious convictions to perform the task.

They stressed that no gay person had been denied either a civil partnership or counselling as a result of their refusal to provide them.

But, dismissing both cases, the court said employers could oblige all their staff to comply with a reasonable policy.

Secularists had insisted that to do otherwise in either Ms Ladele's or Mr McFarlane's case would be demeaning to gay people, and "retrogressive".

Job applicants

The judgement does not mean a company can ignore the religious views of employees but it can override them in order to achieve "a higher priority" - in this case making sure gay people get equal treatment in the provision of services.

Companies will be able to ask applicants for jobs what their position is on issues such as civil partnerships or sexual counselling for gay couples, and refuse them the post if their religious beliefs would prevent them from doing the work.

None of this means that the right of Christians, traditionalist or otherwise, to hold religious beliefs has been undermined by the judgement.

British courts have distinguished between the right to hold a religious belief - which is protected under the law - and the right to manifest or express it, where the protection is much more qualified.

Traditionalist Christians claim their rights to freedom of religious conscience have been steadily subordinated to the rights - especially of homosexual people - to equality.

The European Court of Human Rights allows generous latitude to Council of Europe states to make their own decisions about such developments as civil partnerships.

Legal seal

The UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission suggested that British courts had interpreted the law on manifestation of religion and religious discrimination too narrowly in the past.

Myriad cases have come before the courts concerning not just counselling or civil partnerships but such issues as the placing of children for adoption by same-sex parents and the turning away of gay couples from guesthouses.

The European Court of Human Rights' judgement set a legal seal on the numerous hearings in which Christians have tried, and failed, to defend their values against secular ones in British courts.

Occasionally judges have seemed scathing about the claims made by Christians.

Dismissing an earlier appeal by Mr McFarlane, Mr Justice Laws said legislation that protected views, simply because they were religious, would be irrational, divisive and arbitrary.

He added that religion was a "matter of opinion" that could not be proved and should not, therefore, be used as the basis for making law.

Rights are a matter of balance - the exercise of one person's rights can undermine those of another.

That balance has shifted during recent decades, and the influence of Christian teaching on British culture and law has steadily waned.

The European Court of Human Rights has left a milestone on the road to a secular society.

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