The European Court of Human Rights will give its ruling tomorrow on four cases brought by UK citizens who claim that their human rights to religious freedom were broken by their employers.
Two of the cases were brought by British Airways employee, Nadia Eweida and NHS nurse Shirley Chaplin whose employers banned them from wearing crosses at work.
According to Christian Concern Shirley Chaplin had worn her confirmation cross on a small chain around her neck, without incident, throughout her nearly thirty years in front-line nursing. Then, as part of a new uniform policy, she was told to remove it although allowances were made for the religious dress of others.
The other two cases were brought by civil marriage registrar Lillian Ladele and sex therapist Gary MacFarlane who were sacked for refusing to provide services to homosexuals due to their conscientious beliefs.
Lillian Ladele was disciplined by Islington Council for not being prepared to conduct civil partnership ceremonies in spite of the fact that other registrars were prepared to meet any demand for the service and Ms Ladele’s conscience could have been easily accommodated by her employer.
Gary McFarlane, an experienced relationships counsellor, indicated during a training course that, if the situation ever arose, he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith. He was dismissed for gross misconduct for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, despite the fact that the issue involved a hypothetical scenario and the fact that there was no risk of anyone being denied a service, since there were many other counsellors who were willing and able to provide it.
In both sets of cases David Cameron’s government argued against the right to religious and conscientious freedom.
James Eadie QC, acting for David Cameron’s government, stated before the European Court of Human Rights that Christians are only entitled to religious freedom in the privacy of their homes, insisting that there was a “difference between the professional and private sphere”.
James Eadie QC, acting for the government, told the European court that the refusal to allow an NHS nurse and a British Airways worker to visibly wear a crucifix at work “did not prevent either of them practicing religion in private”, which would be protected by human rights law.
He argued that a Christian facing problems at work with religious expression needed to consider their position and that they were not discriminated against if they still have the choice of leaving their job and finding new employment.
“There are two aspects to this part of the argument. Firstly resigning and moving to another job and secondly there is clear and consistent jurisprudence that the person who asserts religious rights may on occasion have to take account of their position,” he said.
“There is a difference between the professional sphere where your religious freedoms necessarily abut onto and confront other interests and the private sphere. The employees concerned could indeed pursue all the generally recognised manifestations of their religion outside the work sphere.”
David Cameron’s government also reverted to the powers of Elizabeth I by assuming the sole right to determine what constituted legal Christian practice in these realms by claiming that wearing a cross was not a “generally recognised” act of Christian worship.
The QC also told the court that, unlike the Muslim headscarf for women, wearing a cross is not a “generally recognised” act of Christian worship and is not required by scripture. “A great many Christians do not insist on wearing crosses at all, still less visibly.’
James Dingemans QC, acting for Mrs Eweida, questioned the value of having a right to religious belief if it could not be applied at work, where people spend 80 per cent of their adult lives.
“What value is a right that stops when you cross the threshold of work,” he said.
Arguing against David Cameron’s government the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican Bishop of Rochester, told the European Court of Human Rights that recent judicial decisions against Christians show that UK judges have an agenda of deliberately driving Christian faith from public life.
In the submission he warns against what he calls an “increasingly aggressive secularism” at work in Britain and Europe as a whole.
Describing himself as “unashamed” of the Christian faith, he challenges the judges to recognise openly the central place of Christianity in Europe.
“The Christian faith and our Judeo Christian values are the cornerstone of our freedoms, prosperity and liberty in Europe,” he tells the court.
“As such, the Cross is part of our culture and reflects Christian values of love, sacrifice and service so central to European culture.”
But he warns that Christianity is now under threat from a “human rights agenda” which he argues is denying Christians their rights while upholding those of others.
In a reference to the suppression in communist countries before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he adds: “The abuse of human rights by secular Governments in Central and Eastern Europe is all too recent.
“The new Human Rights agenda must respect Judaeo-Christian values if it is not to become another inhuman ideology imposing restrictions on individuals.
“There is a deep fear in the United Kingdom that the Human Rights agenda is becoming set against human rights; and seeking to remove Judaeo-Christian values from the public square.”
“In case after case in the United Kingdom, the rights of Christians have been vanquished. We have reached the stage where Christians in the United Kingdom risk their employment if they wear a Cross.”
He insists that freedom of religion must be given “its pre-eminent place in European society”.
“It is not a hobby, but a fundamental right as precious as privacy or even free speech,” he writes. “In the background are a number of social factors: increasingly aggressive secularism, the drive to remove Judaeo-Christian values from the public square and the emergence of a multi faith Europe.
“Thus, there is a paradox; as the institutions of the West become more secular, the place of religion is becoming more important in Europe as ‘minority’ faiths have to be accommodated.
“A sensible solution is needed.”
Protect the Pope comment: Tomorrow UK Christians will learn if the growing secular intolerance towards our faith is backed by the European Court of Human Rights, just as it is backed by UK judges and courts. If the European Court accepts the position taken by David Cameron’s government then our religious and conscientious freedoms will be increasingly curtailed because we will have no legal protection against the atheistic secular culture being rapidly put in place. As Barrister Paul Diamond, a religious freedom specialist, said before the European court:
‘It seems that the British legal system is intent on removing the Judeo-Christian foundation of our laws, which have served us for a thousand years, replacing them with a secular, liberal worldview which dispenses tolerance to all those who agree with it and relentless hostility, or even persecution, to those who do not.’