Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Religious discrimination cases to go to European court

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Nadia Eweida's long-running dispute over her right to wear a
cross is emblematic of the debate over religious freedom
The European Court of Human Rights is to hear the cases of four British Christians who claim they were the victims of religious discrimination by their former employers. Two of the cases concern the right to wear religious symbols at work, and have been brought by Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker who was sent home for breaking uniform rules in 2006, and Shirley Chaplin, the nurse from Devon who lost an employment tribunal over a similar issue in 2010. The other two cases concern Christians who refused to provide services to same-sex couples, and have been brought by Gary McFarlane, who was sacked by Relate for refusing to give relationship counselling to gay couples, and Lilian Ladele, the Islington-based registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

All four cases have been backed by the Christian Legal Centre, which claims that British equality law is damaging religious freedom. Andrew Marsh, campaign director at the CLC's sister organisation Christian Concern, told BBC News that, in all four cases, the employers should have been able to accommodate the beliefs of their employees:
"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, secular campaigners have long argued that the cases pose a threat to equality laws, with the potential of creating a "hierarchy of rights" with religious rights at the top. Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, has expressed his hope that the European court will uphold the judgements of the British courts, which have rejected claims of religious discrimination:
"Our domestic courts have been robust in dismissing these cases and the victim narrative that lies behind them has no basis in reality. What they describe as discrimination and marginalisation of Christians is in fact the proper upholding of human rights and equalities law and principles. All reasonable people will agree that there is scope in a secular democracy for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs when that accommodation does not affect the rights and freedoms of others. But if believers try to invoke their beliefs as a defence for treating other people badly – denying them a service because they are gay or claiming a right to preach at them in a professional context – the law is right to prevent them."
For a guide to some of the ethical considerations at play in the debate over religious discrimination, it's well worth taking a look at Kenan Malik's guide from our July issue, in which he draws on moral philosophy in order to consider how recent real-life conflicts over religious freedom could be resolved.

It's interesting to note that the ECHR will be hearing all four of the British cases together, as in some respects the cases concerning crosses and uniform are very different from the cases concerning the provision of services to same-sex couples. If you read Malik's guide, you'll see he comes to very different conclusions on how to resolve these situations, suggesting that employees ought to be allowed to wear religious symbols "in almost every case", but saying that Christians should not be able to refuse services to gay people. Could the ECHR be making a mistake by considering the four cases as one?
blog comments powered by Disqus