European Court got it right

I posted this around this time last year, but this article has prompted me to re-publish it. Yes, there is a real concern regarding how people are treated because of their religious beliefs, but that does not give religious believers the right to discriminate against others and hide behind the “it’s against my religion” excuse.

Today is a landmark day in freedom, rights and expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHA) ruled on 4 cases involving Christians who claim to have been discriminated against on the grounds of their faith:

Nadia Eweida – a Pentecostal Christian of Egyptian descent – went home from a job as a check-in worker for British Airways (BA) at Heathrow Airport after she refused to conceal her silver cross necklace.

Lillian Ladele –  worked for Islington Borough Council in London as a marriage registrar. When civil partnerships were legalised in 2004, Miss Ladele refused to conduct them, saying it was against her religious belief.

Shirley Chaplin – was also asked not to display her cross necklace by her then employers, the Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation NHS Trust.

Gary McFarlane – was sacked by his employer, Relate Avon, after saying he objected to giving sex therapy guidance to same-sex couples. He worked as a relationship counsellor [1]

The ECHA ruled that Nadia Eweida had been discriminated against on the grounds of her faith but the other 3 had not. Court rulings are not always known for their sense however, I can’t disagree with the rulings here. I would object to being asked to hide my cross on the grounds that it was a religious icon. Whilst I have argued previously that the wearing of a cross is not necessarily part of the Christian faith, [2] it is an expression of that faith and todays ruling suggests that it is protected under freedom of religion. Things get a little dicie when health and safety is involved which was the case for Shirley Chaplin. Who wins out here? The message from today is health and safety and I agree it should. If by wearing the crucifix you are potentially putting yourself or others at risk, it needs to be removed or in a place where it no longer poses a danger. The NHS Trusts primary focus is the well being of patients as it should be.

The other 2 are a little more complex and controversial. Homosexuality is a hot topic at the moment with plans to bring in same sex marriages which is probably why Christian Concern have targeted these in their initial response. [3] This was always pitched as a battle of rights but again, I think the court has got this right. To put it bluntly, you cannot decide not to do your job because you are faced with a gay couple. That’s like joining the army then objecting that you might have to shoot someone. The rights of LGBT people are as protected as the rights of religion. Like the NHS Trust, the councils main priority are its constituents and it simply cannot discriminate on grounds of sexuality which means, its employees can’t either. Same for private companies or charities. Employees are required to conduct themselves in a manner that is in accordance to their contract. Objecting to help a gay couple clearly goes against those standards. Indeed, on the Relate Avon website, there is the statement; Relate Avon is committed to ensuring that no person receives less favourable treatment on the basis of personal or group characteristics, such as: race, colour, age, culture, medical condition, sexual orientation, marital status,disability or socio-economic grouping  [4] (emphasis mine) A company must enforce its own rules otherwise you have anarchy.

Lawyers representing the government said previously that people should leave their faith at the door or find another job. [5] Whilst it’s not as simple as that, I can see what they’re getting at. These rulings today show for me that we are allowed to express our faith but not if it discriminates others. What’s wrong with that? After all, isn’t that what Christians are asking for? To not be discriminated against? Religion should be respected but it shouldn’t trump all others. The “it’s my religion” defence just doesn’t work in all cases. That’s the biggest difference between the case that won and the case that lost; the other 3 directly impacted other people by either being refused something open to everyone else, breaking company rules or potentially creating risk. Some would argue that we can’t express our faith without impacting people. That’s true to a degree but there must be limits. Jesus never put anyone in danger other than himself and his followers.

Jesus taught that the world would hate Chrisitans (John 15:19) but I’m pretty sure he meant we should be hated for loving him not for advocating discrimination. Everyone is fighting for their space in the world, to have a voice in society. Christians have a role to play in this world as much as anyone else does. Now is not the time for a circle the wagons mentality. Lets get out into the world, engage with its views, understand their views and maybe, despite the BBC proclaiming we’re on the road to a secular society [6] we can start being the true multicultural tolerant society we all want.

References:

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19467554

[2] http://evidence2hope.webs.com/apps/blog/show/14093692-crucifix-or-no-crucifix-

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21025332

[4] http://www.relate-avon.org.uk/faq.html

[5] http://www.christianconcern.com/our-concerns/religious-freedom/british-government-christians-should-leave-faith-at-the-door-or-get-a

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21037173

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