The Cross We All Must Bear
There has been an explosion of recent cases surrounding the issues of religious freedoms and discrimination. This article asks, do people have the right to visible displays of faith – including garments and symbols – in the workplace, is Christianity becoming the most discriminated against religion, and what should be done when people’s religious beliefs conflict with another’s religion, gender or sexual identity to the point of discrimination?
Government plans to fast-track legislation to allow gay marriages has recently been met with controversy; a Scottish Catholic bishop condemned David Cameron for being “devoid of moral competence”. He has also accused the PM of undermining family life for allegedly refusing to support the right to wear the cross at work. The bishop also compared David Cameron to Nero, the brutal Roman emperor who persecuted Christians. Both the gay and religious lobby claim discrimination. I never thought I would feel sympathy for David Cameron, and I was right. But I will admit that the government has a difficult job balancing religious rights against employers’ right and equality laws to ensure a discrimination free society.
Should people have the right to visible displays of faith in the workplace, is it against their human right?
A hearing at the European Court of Human Rights currently involves four cases. The first is Nadia Eweida’s, who was told she could not wear her cross at work by British Airways and Shirley Chaplin who was also told she could not wear her cross as a nurse for health and safety. Lilian Ladele was sacked as a registrar by Islington council because she refused to conduct civil partnerships and Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor lost his job after declaring that he felt unable to give sex therapy to gay people. All claim that their cases are in contradiction of their right to “thought, conscience and religion” under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
James Eadie QC, acting for the Government, told the judges ‘there is a difference between the professional sphere where your religious beliefs conflict with other interests and the private sphere,’ he said. ‘Everyone has the right to express their beliefs, including the right to display religious symbols, but not an absolute right or a right without limits. That does not mean that in their professional sphere anyone can manifest their religious belief in any way they choose.’ Adding, they could not ask to express their religion in ways which were not a ‘scriptural requirement’ and that ‘employees are free to resign’.
Are Christians becoming increasingly discriminated against, are they given less favourability than other religions?
Lawyers for Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin say that Christians are given less favourability than other religions that are protected through law for garments and symbols such as the Sikh turban and kara bracelet, the Muslim hijab or the Jewish kippah. Andrea Williams, the director of the Christian Legal Centre, asserted that “in recent months the courts have refused to recognise the wearing of a cross, belief in marriage between a man and a woman and Sundays as a day of worship as ‘core’ expressions of the Christian faith. What next? Will our courts overrule the Ten Commandments?”
Some might say this is an exaggeration; Christianity is still a big part of British life. Bishops still sit in the House of Lords and the established Church is still able to pass ‘Measures’, special statutes dealing only with Church matters which are passed into law. For Christians who are not actively religious, the Church of England is often the “default” Church that they turn to for weddings, christenings, funerals and education. Visible religious identity is a contentious issue; a particular item may not be a ‘scriptural requirement’ but a sign of religious devotion
What should be done when people’s religious beliefs conflict with another’s religion, gender or sexual identity?
Peter and Hazelmary Bull, of the Chymorvah Hotel, denied a gay couple a room because as Christians they did not believe unmarried couples should share a room. Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, who are in a civil partnership described it as “direct discrimination“. Should people be allowed to open up a business subject to community standards that excludes whole sections of the community from using their service; is it part of their freedom of religion? The court decided not. Mike Judge, from the Christian Institute, which funded the Bulls’ defence, said “this ruling is further evidence that equality laws are being used as a sword rather than a shield.” Whilst Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill proclaimed that, “religious freedom shouldn’t be used as a cloak for prejudice.” With all this passionate rhetoric of government laws stabbing Christians with swords and special Harry Potter cloaks that allow them to discriminate undetected, one thing is certain, both parties will claim discrimination and the government will have a tricky job trying to protect the rights of everyone.
In mid-November this year, Stonewall criticised a Yorkshire bus driver after he allegedly refused to operate a bus because it displayed an advert for the gay rights charity. Yes that’s right, he refused to drive a bus because he didn’t like the poster on the outside. This extreme case highlights the issue of religion in the workplace. If we don’t differentiate between the rights one has in their professional and private sphere, next we’ll have religious lollipop ladies refusing to cross children they deem too camp, leaving them to catwalk across busy roads unchaperoned. Surely, if there comes a point when someone’s personal religious beliefs obstructs them from doing their job effectively and impartially, an employer should have the right to fire them. As in the ECHR cases of Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane.
Do people have the right to discriminate against others within their own religion?
To ensure religious freedom is crucial, but it is inevitable that the government will need to infringe on some religious beliefs to insure a discrimination free society. David Cameron said earlier this month after the Church of England produced a no vote on allowing female bishops that he would not intervene with legislation to change the decision. Sally Barnes in an interview commented on this, saying, “any women would be pleased not to be outside the discrimination act because they have no redress, they can’t do anything about it, if you’re outside the act and something discriminatory happens to you in a church or in a faith group which is wrong.”
Christian Union’s (CU) – which are not churches but student led and student run societies – also came into controversy last week after it emerged that the Bristol Christian Union banned women from speaking at the society unless they were accompanied by their husbands. An improvement, since for the past few years they weren’t allowed to speak at all. The Bristol Christian Union has since backtracked on its controversial policy amid all the negative national press. Should there still be instances in 21st century Britain where intelligent women are forced to communicate using mime, expressive dance or writing on the walls with their lipstick without husbands present? Is this the business of the Church, Christian Unions and its members alone or is the presence of discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality or the religion of others, an issue for society as a whole? If Jesus does return, I’m not so sure he’ll care about what people are wearing or who allowed a gay couple to stay in their hotel.
by Natasha Holder