A closer look at the Christian cases going to the European Court of Human Rights

A closer look at the Christian cases going to the European Court of Human Rights

I was down to do the Radio 4 Sunday Programme at the weekend, but at the last minute told by the programme that the Christian Legal Centre was refusing to discuss with me the cases of the four Pentecostal Christians whose complaints are being taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

I was wondering why this was, but then I remembered the last time some of the same actors (under a different name) tried a similar initiative in 2002. In the Court of Appeal they tried to argue that corporal punishment was a "biblical doctrine". We publicly challenged this. The case was unsuccessful.

In all four of the latest cases - involving British Airways check-in clerk Nadia Eweida, nurse Shirley Chaplin, relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane and registrar Lilian Ladele - there is also information that those involved would rather wasn't widely publicised.

• Ms Eweida from Twickenham, south-west London, was sent home by her employer British Airways in 2006 after refusing to cover up a necklace with a cross. What isn’t usually mentioned is that until 2004, Eweida had happily worn her cross covered up at work under her blouse. In other words, it wasn’t part of her religious faith to feel a requirement to display it. It was only when the uniform policy changed to a lower neckline that she (and those backing her case) decided to make an issue of it.

• Devon-based nurse Mrs Chaplin was moved to a desk job by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital after refusing to remove a chain carrying her cross. Managers suggested she pin her cross to her uniform or wear it on her identity lanyard, avoiding the health and safety issue of a disorientated patient grabbing it. However she refused. Again, this wasn't an issue of not being able to wear a cross, but a health and safety issue about the chain around her neck, which the Trust was worried could be grabbed by a disorientated patient.

• Mr McFarlane, a Bristol counsellor, was sacked by Relate after saying he had a conscientious objection to giving relationship advice to gay people. However, what isn’t often mentioned is that he had previously agreed to abide by their Equal Opportunities Policy.

• Ms Ladele was disciplined over her refusal to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London. But she was actually offered the opportunity to undertake only the duty involving the signing of the relevant papers (the registration). This, the employment tribunal noted, would involve no more than obtaining certain information for the civil partners. This option was refused.

These facts rarely come out in the media reporting (as has been observed by the judges presiding over the cases), but they are there in the employment tribunal judgements, and subsequent court cases for those who want to have a closer look.

The cases aren’t so much about religion as about breaches of employment law, policies and codes of practice to which Christians have previously signed up. Velma Eyre, an associate at Pinsent Masons law firm, concludes: “In the cases we've seen it's not religion [that has caused dismissal] it's the fact [that the employee is] breaching their contract of employment."

[NB Since 2005 we have been urging a more positive approach to resolving these disputes, using mediation. See for example our 2005 report "United We Stand" which was welcomed by the Government and Guardian article here We also contributed to the recently published investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission]

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

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