Wakefield and District Housing (WDH) has refuted media-fuelled claims that it has discriminated against an employee because he is a Christian.
In a case which has excited the attention of the Daily Mail newspaper and former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, electrician Colin Atkinson was asked to remove a palm cross from the front of his vehicle, because WDH has a policy - applied to those of all religions and none - which prohibits personal artefacts and symbols in its vehicles.
Campaign groups and Mr Atkinson say that he is being picked on because he is a Christian, despite the fact that the policy does not single out any one group. But WDH strongly denies this.
“WDH fully support the right of our employees to wear religious symbols while at work, and support their right to have religious symbols on their desks," the company said in a public statement this week.
“WDH simply don’t allow employees to display personal items in our company vans," it explained. “Throughout this case, we’ve acted fully within the law and within the spirit of the law."
Wakefield and District Housing says: “Despite media reports to the contrary, we haven’t commenced formal disciplinary proceedings against Colin, and we sincerely hope that we can reach a satisfactory outcome for both Colin and WDH without doing so.”
Lord Carey and others have suggested that WDH is being inconsistent, because the CEO has a Che Guevara poster in his office. But the company rule is about vehicles, not what is displayed in and around desks - where religious and other symbols are allowed.
The Christian thinktank Ekklesia says that the electrician does not appear to be a victim of anti-Christian discrimination, since the rule in dispute does not single out any particular religion or belief.
Ekklesia has also cautioned against a simplistic approach to this and similar cases, which are being used to buttress campaigns suggesting that Christians face systemic discrimination in the UK.
It has expressed the hope that all parties involved will attempt to resolve the case by mediation rather than confrontation, but has also questioned the interpretation being put on the incident by some - namely, that it amounts to hostility to Christianity.
Symon Hill, associate director of the thinktank, commented: "Wakefield and District Housing allow employees to wear religious symbols but not to display symbols in vehicles. This rule may or may not be defensible, but it applies to everyone – not a particular faith group. There therefore appears to be no substance to claims that WHD are discriminating against Christians in particular.
“Cases like this are most likely to be resolved by mediation and dialogue, not by scaremongering and hysterical headlines. We have seen no evidence that Christians as a group face systematic discrimination in Britain - but the constant repetition of unfounded claims may be in danger of bringing Christianity into disrepute.
Mr Hill added: “It is also ironic that this case should be about a cross and should be raised in Holy Week – since the cross symbolises Jesus’ sacrificial death at the hands of political and religious authorities who wanted to suppress his nonviolent resistance to injustice. Properly understood, the cross is therefore a sign of self-giving love, not a justification for preoccupation with one's own status as a religious group.”
The trade union UNITE and others are investigating the details of the case.
Wakefield and District Housing became the largest single housing stock transfer organisation in the area in 2005, taking responsibility for over 31,000 homes in the Wakefield District.