LONDON — One of Europe’s highest courts is considering a landmark decision on the employment rights of Christians, including two British women who were disciplined for wearing crucifix necklaces at work.
They were among four Christians who this week took their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg claiming workplace discrimination that a former Archbishop of Canterbury says has turned them into victims of a new secular orthodoxy.
The four, all Britons who claim that national laws failed to protect them, argue that their employers contravened European human rights legislation that bans religious discrimination and allows “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
A lawyer for the British government argued at a hearing in Strasbourg on Tuesday that these rights were protected only in the private sphere and not in the workplace.
The cases include those of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was sent home in 2006 after refusing to remove or conceal a cross that she was wearing on a chain around her neck, and Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was taken off ward duties after her hospital decided that her crucifix necklace posed a health and safety threat to patients.
The other cases involved Lillian Ladele, a municipal official who refused to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples after they became legal in Britain in 2005, and Gary McFarlane, a relationship counselor who was fired for refusing to give sex advice to homosexual couples.
“[They] believe that homosexual relationships are contrary to God’s law and that it is incompatible with their beliefs to do anything to condone homosexuality,” the court said in a statement outlining the details of all four cases.
Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, said in an editorial this week that for most of his 76-year lifetime, “the beliefs of the four Christians involved in today’s case would have earned widespread respect.”
“Now, however, they and many others are the new heretics,” Lord Carey, the former head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, argued in The Daily Mail. “Indeed, it seems the secular equivalent of the Inquisition will brook no dissent from the reigning orthodoxy of diversity and equality.”
Other Christian commentators called for changes to legislation to protect the rights of Christians.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, a lawyer and founder of the Christian Legal Center said, “Many believe it is unfair that hard-working public servants and employees are being discriminated against simply because of their faith.”
She said: “If we are successful in Strasbourg I hope that the Equality Act and other diversity legislation will be overhauled, so that Christians are free to work and act in accordance with their beliefs and conscience.”
Britain’s official Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that past court rulings had led to confusion over the rights of believers, and had also made it difficult for them to prove that they had been discriminated against because of their religion or belief.
It argued that workers and employers should try to find agreement before resorting to the law. “For example, if a Jew asks not to have to work on a Saturday for religious reasons, his employer could accommodate this with minimum disruption simply by changing the rota [work schedule],” the Commission said last year.
The Commission was obliged to clarify its opinions, however, after gay rights groups insisted that the rights of homosexuals should not be trumped by those of Christians.
A Commission spokeswoman subsequently explained that: “Under no circumstances does the Commission condone or permit the refusal of public services to lesbian or gay people.”
Secularists were also on the alert for any move to enshrine special rights for Christians.
The National Secular Society said before the court hearing that British courts had been right to reject the four complaints.
“The rights of gay people are placed at risk if it is decided that ‘reasonable accommodation’ is acceptable when religious people provide (or refuse to provide) services to them,” the society said.
As for crucifix necklaces, employers had the right to ask employees to comply with safety regulations.
“We very much regret the disingenuous and persistent portrayal of the current situation as being a blanket ban on religious symbols in the workplace,” the society said. “As the millions of people who wear a cross to work will testify, there is no such ban, nor should there be such a ban.”
The Strasbourg court, which has the power to overturn the rulings of European national courts, will have the final say.