A Christian-owned bakery harried through the courts for refusing to produce a cake endorsing same-sex marriage and a nurse driven out of her job for wearing a small cross. The two are apparently unconnected but have found themselves in the same news cycle this week.
The ‘gay cake case’, as it’s invariably billed, has been trundling along since 2014, when gay rights activist Gareth Lee commissioned Belfast-based Ashers Baking Company to produce a cake featuring the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’, the logo of the organisation QueerSpace, and Bert and Ernie, two Sesame Street characters ‘shipped’ as gay by some fans of the children’s TV series.
Ashers, whose owners are Christian, said it would be unable to complete the order because the message was at odds with their religious convictions. Lee claimed discrimination on sexual orientation grounds and triumphed in court and in an appeal. But these judgments were reversed by the Supreme Court in 2018, which ruled that the bakery had cancelled the order because it objected to the message prescribed for the cake, not because it was refusing Lee service as a homosexual.
The case is back in the news after the European Court of Human Rights, to which Lee had gone to contest the Supreme Court’s verdict, declared his challenge inadmissible. The court finds that Lee ‘failed to exhaust domestic remedies’ because he ‘did not invoke his Convention rights expressly at any point in the domestic proceedings’ and the court declined to ‘usurp the role of the domestic courts’ by intervening itself. With any luck that will be the end of the matter for Daniel and Amy McArthur, the young couple who own Ashers and who have been put through seven years of expensive and stressful litigation for trying to live by their Christian beliefs.
The other story making headlines is that of Mary Onuoha, a theatre nurse at Croydon University Hospital until 2020. Onuoha, a Catholic, wore a necklace with a small gold cross on it, which was only visible when she was wearing scrubs. Her bosses objected and repeatedly tried to get Onuoha to remove or conceal the pendant or wear a cross less conspicuously as stud earrings no larger than five millimetres. This was despite Croydon Health Services NHS Trust having a dress code policy that ‘welcomes the variety of appearances brought by individual styles, choices and religious requirements regarding dress’ and states that the wearing of items including hijabs, turbans and kirpans is ‘seen as part of welcoming diversity.’
When Onuoha refused to submit, the matter was ‘escalated’. She was again told to remove her cross, and a manager described the inch-and-a-half pendant as an infection and health and safety risk; eventually the Trust ‘redeployed’ this theatre nurse of almost two decades’ service to work as a receptionist. A letter confirmed this decision had been taken because of ‘the potential harm to patients’ and ‘the reputational risk to the organisation’. It also put Onuoha in the department overseen by the manager who had tried to get her cross removed and against whom she had filed a grievance complaint for religious discrimination. By August 2020, and after several more redeployments to non-clinical jobs, Onuoha tendered her resignation.
Now London South Employment Tribunal has found that Onuoha ‘was constructively dismissed and the dismissal was unfair’, was ‘singled out for an aggressive application of the dress code and uniform policy’ and the NHS Trust ‘failed to accommodate a reasonable manifestation of the claimant’s religion’. Onuoha says:
“‘My cross has been with me for 40 years. It is part of me, and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm. At this hospital there are members of staff who go to a mosque four times a day and no one says anything to them. Hindus wear red bracelets on their wrists and female Muslims wear hijabs in theatre. Yet my small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job. I am a strong woman but I have been treated like a criminal.’
These two cases — Ashers and Onuoha — though very different legal questions, both raise the same fundamental principle: religious liberty. In neither case did the believers attempt to impose their convictions on anyone else: they simply asked to be left alone to practice their faith. If anything, it was they who were being aggressively preached to, whether by efforts to compel them to engage in expression contrary to their conscience or to hide modest manifestations of Christian piety even as other forms of religious articulation were encouraged.
These outcomes should be welcomed by believers in freedom of conscience, regardless of whether they profess Christian beliefs or think all religion is a nonsense. A liberal society is not one in which liberties and protections are extended only to those groups favoured by liberals. The ideological assumptions that underpin the equality and human rights industries, as well as the diversity and human resources sectors, tend to see tolerance as something to be imposed on Christians and extended to everyone else.
In their zealous quest to celebrate everything ‘diverse’, ‘minority’ or ‘multicultural’, they not only sideline Christianity in the many forms it has been practised in this country since Augustine of Canterbury rocked up in Kent, they also disregard the fact that British Christians today are more diverse, minority and multicultural than the monochrome, monoclass, monopolitical priesthood of the religion of equality.