Commentary on the Strasbourg judgement: Eweida & Others v. the UK

Writing on his eChurch blog, Stuart James, who has been following the Eweida, Chaplin, Ladele and McFarlane cases thoughtfully, comments that there is one thing we can guarantee. When the European Court of Human Rights judgement on alleged 'discrimination against Christians' claims is published (that happened this morning), there will be "a flurry of ill-informed, polemic, alarmist headlines, and articles."

While there has, inevitably, been some of that today, there have also been reflective and illuminating responses, including Stuart's (see links below).

Rosalind English, writing on the excellent UK Human Rights blog, noted: "The Strasbourg Court has today come up with something of a mixed message in relation to religion at work. They have voted that there is a right to manifest individual faith by wearing religious adornments but not by objecting to practices that are protected by anti-discrimination legislation."

I'm not sure the message is that mixed. I'd say it was pretty consistent. As civil rights group Liberty suggests, freedom of religion or belief and equal treatment belong together and reinforce each other.

Ms English then goes on to offer a sound and helpful analyisis of key points of the judgement, focusing on the dissenting views, and to a lesser extent on the various interventions. She rightly delves into the important issue of proportionality.

Those intervening in the cases include the Equality and Human Rights Commission, The National Secular Society, The Premier Christian Media Trust, the Bishops of Chester and Blackburn, Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe, and Liberty, all of whom have made statements.

From the Law Society Gazette, the journal of the Law Society of England and Wales, Jonathan Rayner reports both on the ECtHR judgment, in brief, and on a variety of legal reactions.

Roger Smith, former director of human rights group JUSTICE, says: "The Strasbourg court has got it spot on, defying those poised to attack it. The judgment displays a sensible balance, largely supports the decisions of domestic tribunals and focuses on the extent to which displays of religious belief might interfere with work practices."

Employment law partner Tom Walker, from London and Oxford law firm Manches, concluded: "The Strasbourg court understandably distinguishes between a person who is herself refusing to apply equality in her job through her refusal to conduct same-sex civil partnerships and someone who merely asks to be allowed to wear a small cross at work. As lawyers used to say, res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks for itself."

But Daniel Peyton, employment partner with international firm McGuireWoods, reckons the ECtHR judgment "puts us back where we started before the case went to the ECHR with different rights competing with each other."

Others strongly contest the 'competing rights' approach, arguing that a situation where beliefs have to be respected and accommodated, but not at the expense of denying good, services and equal treatment to others (who may be of the same religion, other religion or no religion) based on balance and proportionality, is fair and coherent. I would back that view.

Last but not least, Jerome Taylor, increasingly busy religion correspondent of The Independent newspaper, weighted in this morning with 'ECHR ruling reinforces the crucial point that religious rights don't automatically trump the rights of others'. That is true and important. The only shame is that he keeps referring to something called 'the Christian lobby' - by which is meant certain socially conservative Christian lobby groups. These do not speak for Christians and Christianity as a whole, however... even if they would like to claim they do.

On a more general level, it is a pity that journalists find it so seductive to simplify in this way. It makes good headlines, but doesn't aid understanding. There have been Christians on both sides of these cases, in every sense. Indeed, some of those who would have their rights trampled on if the conservative lobby groups got their way are themselves Christians.

Taylor is among those who recognise and try to address this problem, and he was good enough to quote me about it in another Indie piece.

Meanwhile, Ekklesia itself has been kept busy. I've been offering commentary (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17801) and background to a number of news sources. Associate director Symon Hill (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17799) was on BBC Radio 5 Live this morning, and this evening will be on Radio London at around 6.20pm. Jonathan Bartley was also on the BBC. We have been looking at the implications of these cases and similar ones for some seven years.

* Religious rights at work must be balanced against rights of others, says European Court of Human Rights - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17803

* Rosalind English, UK Human Rights, 'Strasbourg rules against UK on BA crucifix issue' - http://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2013/01/15/strasbourg-rules-against-ba-on-c...

* Law Society Gazette, Jonathan Rayner: 'British Airways employee wins discrimination case' - http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/british-airways-employee-wins-discrimin...

* Stuart James, eChurch, 'European Court of Human Rights (ECHR): Eweida, Chaplin, Ladele, McFarlane – Judgement Published' - http://blog.echurchwebsites.org.uk/2013/01/15/european-court-human-right...

* 'A loss for the Christian lobby: ECHR ruling reinforces the crucial point that religious rights don't automatically trump the rights of others', by Jerome Taylor, Independent - http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/a-loss-for-the-christian-lob...

* 'Prominent evangelical pastor Reverend Steve Chalke declares support for monogamous same sex relationships', by Jerome Taylor, Independent - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/prominent-evangelical-pas...

* Liberty: 'Court of Human Rights delivers common-sense judgment on religious freedom and equal treatment' - http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/media/press/2013/court-of-human-r...

------

© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. 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.