British Christians take complaints to European court

AFP , Tuesday 4 Sep 2012

British Christians who believe they have suffered discrimination because of their religion are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights

Four British Christians who say they lost their jobs because of their Christian beliefs on Tuesday took their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In a challenge to what former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey described as the "reigning orthodoxy of diversity and equality", the four alleged they suffered discrimination as a result of their Christian values.

Two of the four lost their jobs over their conviction that homosexual relationships are contrary to God's law and that it is incompatible with their religion to do anything to condone homosexuality.

One, a registrar, objected to officiating at civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex couples, while the other, a therapist, did not wish to give counseling to same-sex couples.

The other two – an airline worker and a nurse – fell foul of their employers after wearing necklaces with crosses at work.

Carey said that in most of his lifetime the beliefs of the four Christians would "have earned widespread respect".

But their cases had prompted him to "question whether... faith is a bar to public service".

"In the past, there was space for negotiation between individuals and their employers, but the burden of ever-increasing regulation has meant that questions of conscience and freedom are neglected in favour of conformity," he said.

The four took their cases to the court in Strasbourg after employment tribunals in Britain ruled against them.

British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, 61, and nurse Shirley Chaplin, 57, had claimed restrictions on the wearing of Christian crosses was discrimination on religious grounds, but those claims were rejected.

The tribunal found that the visible wearing of a cross was not a requirement of the Christian faith but Eweida's personal choice and that she had failed to establish that British Airways's uniform policy had put Christians in general at a disadvantage.

The Supreme Court refused her leave to appeal in May 2010.

Chaplin's claim was also rejected in May 2010, the tribunal holding that the hospital that employed her had based its objection on health and safety rather than religious grounds.

Lawyer James Dingemans, representing Eweida, said colleagues faced no such restrictions on other religious symbols such as the Sikh turban or the Muslim hijab.

"It was indisputable that wearing the cross visibly did not have any detrimental effect on Miss Eweida's ability to do her job," he said.

Paul Diamond, for Chaplin, quoted the nurse as saying her world had been turned upside down by the tribunal and left her "shattered".

"They (my employers) also implied that I was a danger to patients because of my failure to remove my cross. I cannot put into words how that makes me feel."

The two other cases were brought by Lillian Ladele, 52, and Gary McFarlane, 51.

As a registrar, Ladele refused to sign an amended contract after the Civil Partnership Act came into force in the United Kingdom in December 2005 and she was informed that she would be required to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex couples.

McFarlane's superiors and colleagues expressed concern that there was conflict between his work as a therapist with same-sex couples and his religious beliefs.

He was dismissed summarily for gross misconduct in March 2008 on the ground that he had stated he would comply with his employer's Equal Opportunities Policies and provide counselling to same-sex couples without any intention of doing so. A subsequent appeal was rejected.

But James Eadie, representing the UK government, argued that expressions of belief "were not absolute rights, or rights without limits".

"Employers cannot be forced to accommodate (the) religious beliefs of employees who do not wish to provide services to the public or a section of a public.

Writing in Tuesday's online edition of the Daily Mail, Carey said the four were the "new heretics".

"Indeed, it seems the secular equivalent of the Inquisition will brook no dissent from the reigning orthodoxy of diversity and equality," he said.

A ruling by the Strasbourg-based court is not expected for several months.

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