Plaudits and questions about airline turnaround on religious symbols

By staff writers
January 22, 2007

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have welcomed the decision by BA (British Airways) to review and modify its uniform policy to allow the wearing of crosses and religious symbols. But questions have been raised by others about the tactics used by campaigning church groups towards the company, which have been described by some as "bullying".

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared this week: "I am grateful that BA have listened to the deep concerns that have been expressed about this issue and that their change of policy now allows Christians to wear crosses openly. Important issues have been raised; this is a positive and constructive outcome."

The issue arose last year when a Christian steward, Nadia Eweida, complained that she was being discriminated against because she was prohibited from wearing a small cross on the lapel of her uniform, while members of other religious communities were allowed to wear much more overt traditional dress.

The airline said that it had a policy against any costume jewellery, both on grounds of corporate image and for health and safety reasons. It said that the prohibition did not single out Christian or other religious symbols, but that where a religious form of dress was required for adherents, they would attempt to respect it. This principle does not apply to Christians - Orthodox, who wear crosses upon baptism, like to have them close to the heart rather than on display. Other Christians choose not to wear crosses, or even oppose such symbolism.

However, following a public outcry about the policy, and the supension of the steward, the airline has decided to revise its dress code. Church groups were particularly vocal in their lobbying, and the National Secular Society - which would like to see a reduction or elimination of overt religious symbols in public life - said last week that BA had given into "bullying" by religious organisations.

However, Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, said: "I am grateful that BA have finally shown both grace and magnanimity in this change of policy so as to enable their Christian employees to display their commitment to their faith. I welcome the efforts made by BA to allow the wearing of the Cross by those Christian employees who wish to do so. Nadia Eweida’s courage and commitment to her Lord is a challenge to us all that love and loyalty to Christ conquers in the end."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, said today: "It is a good principle to seek wherever possible to allow people to wear symbols or adornments that are of personal importance to them, whether they are religious in origin or not. In this sense, BA's change of policy may be viewed as positive, though there is no evidence that they were seeking to discriminate."

He added: "Nevertheless, the aggressive tenor of the campaign run by some Christian groups over issues like these is a cause for concern. To describe the outcome using a word like "conquer" seems to associate Jesus Christ with the coercive power of church institutions. For some of us that attitude is offensive and wrong. Christians need to pursue their concerns with courtesy and love, rather than steamrolling self-regard, if they are to be consistent with the Gospel message itself."

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.