David Blackburn

Briefing: the Christians taking their fight to Europe

Away from the drama of the reshuffle, the European Court of Human Rights is hearing the pleas of four British Christians, who are arguing that UK law inadequately protects their right to manifest their faith under articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicants’ cases are well known. Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee, was asked to remove or conceal the crucifix that she wore around her neck in line with new uniform prescriptions. She did so on several occasions, but eventually refused and was sent home. She lost her workplace discrimination claims on grounds that she had breached her employer’s regulations without good cause. The government’s legal position stated that Eweida did not have an absolute right to wear her crucifix because the symbol is not a requirement of faith. Another claimant, Shirley Chaplin, an NHS nurse of 30 years’ service, was removed to a desk job when she refused to remove the crucifix around her neck. Her discrimination claim was rejected on the basis of ruling in the Eweida case.

The two other cases are different. Lillian Ladele, a registrar of deaths, births and marriages, objected to officiating at civil partnerships. Her employer, Islington Borough Council, refused to accommodate her. She won a discrimination claim, which was then overturned at a subsequent Employment Appeal Tribunal on grounds that she was in breach of the council’s equality policy, which was based on the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. The Court of Appeal then upheld the EAT’s judgment. Meanwhile, Gary Macfarlane, a Relate marriage and relationship counsellor, was sacked for refusing to discuss sexual matters with same sex couples, although he was willing to work with same sex couples on issues other than sex. His discrimination claims were thrown out on grounds that he had breached Relate’s equality guidelines.

The cases received plenty of media attention, but the stance of the Equality and Human Rights Commission throughout this affair has not.

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