We live in a time when the strong love to portray themselves as victims. During the debate on women bishops, opponents enjoyed portraying their position as one of a hard-done-by minority, being forced to accept women into the fold despite their traditionalist beliefs. It must have been a cruel irony to women trying to become bishops that they were rejected by people playing the martyr.
This tendency pervades modern Christian thought. Christianity remains the dominant religion in the UK. It is the only state religion. It enjoys three minutes of free promotion each morning in the middle of the UK's most popular current affairs programme. It is given a set number of unelected representatives in parliament. Countless government ministers on both sides of the political divide stand up for it against the imaginary enemy of 'aggressive secularism'.
Today, the Christian lobby hit a brick wall. It is being reported as a gain for the movement, but in reality it's a serious loss. Four British Christians - Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane – heard their ruling at the European court of human rights on a variety of concerns which can be summarised as 'religious rights at work'.
All of them lost their cases except Eweida. Looking at what they were demanding is particularly revealing. Ladele was an Islington registrar who refused to officiate at gay civil ceremonies after they were introduced. McFarlane was a therapist for Relate who would not provide counselling to same-sex couples. Amusingly, his views became harder to ignore when he avoided a training session which involved watching the tedious film Brokeback Mountain. On that, and that only, he and I would have been allies.
These two people were unable to do their job. It is no more complicated than that. If someone working at an abattoir becomes a vegan, they will not be able to do their job. If I, as a journalist on an impartial political website, have a Damascene conversion to Toryism and insist on only spouting the party line, I would not be able to do my job.
Ladele and McFarlane's argument was that they should be able to discriminate against gay people, against laws banning discrimination in the provision of goods and services. Their freedom involved taking away the freedom of others to be treated equally. It's not equal rights they were demanding – it's supremacy. Imagine how they would have reacted if a gay supermarket worker refused to serve Christians. What's the difference?
Chaplin's case is just as foolish. The rule against necklaces on her hospital ward was a health and safety measure designed to prevent choking incidents. She was even allowed to wear the cross on a pin but demanded to wear it on a necklace. She was offered non-nursing work. And still she persisted with her bizarre case, as if patient safety took a backseat to her need to demonstrate her commitment to Christ. The ECHR threw out her case, arguing health and safety was more important than her freedom to manifest her religious character. Only the most conservative of media outlets could possibly pretend this was an example of religious discrimination.
In all three cases, their religious freedom limited the freedom of others – either to be treated equally or not to be put at physical risk. The case of Eweida, a British Airways employee, was slightly different. She was the only one to win her case. It has led the headlines and even many secular campaigners have backed her stance. It is difficult to understand why.
Eweida wore her cross under her clothes when she started as check-in staff at BA in 1999. Something changed in 2006, when she decided to put it on the outside. She was informed this was against clothing regulations which banned jewellery. She was sent home for a while until the company changed its policy to allow religious or charity symbols.
As Christians will themselves admit, wearing the cross is not a requirement. Usually sensible organisations seem to have completely lost the plot on this. Even Liberty, which usually does commendable work, argued the case was equivalent to a "Sikh man in a turban or a Muslim woman with a headscarf". Both those are items of clothing required by religion, which the cross is not.
The ECHR found Eweida's desire to manifest her religious belief had to be balanced with employers' wish to project a certain corporate image, but that the pendulum had swung too far towards the latter. But if Eweida is allowed to wear a cross, why can't those of us who dislike religion wear a badge of a crucifix with a red line through it? That would offend many people, of course, but then many of us find religion unpleasant as well. We object to the way it discriminates against women, covers up child abuse and promotes faith over reason.
The rights of non-believers are currently secondary to the rights of believers. Would a Communist who insisted on wearing a badge of a hammer and sickle be entitled to the same protections Eweida received? Article nine guarantees her religious freedom. Article ten guarantees the right to freedom of expression. There is no reason similar cases could not be won for any number of political or social sympathies – from supporting fox hunting to reading Batman comics. Follow the logic of the ruling and in ten years' time workplaces will be populated by staff wearing dozens of badges on their suits to express all their various allegiances. The legal precedent set by the ECHR is subjective and opaque.
It is true Eweida would have been perfectly able to do her job while wearing a crucifix and the judgement in her favour is not a big deal, especially on a day which can only be considered a serious set-back for the Christian lobby. It is certainly far more reasonable and less damaging than any of the three other cases. But the Eweida case reveals something significant about the state of the religious debate in the UK. We have allowed a six-year news narrative around 'Christian persecution' to be based around a worker who failed to comply with clothing regulations – and even then when the company changed the regulation in her favour.
Why not debate 'gay persecution' because homosexual workers can't go into work draped in a rainbow flag? Why not debate 'body modification discrimination' for anyone asked to remove a face piercing before they go into work? The only possible reason we would consider Eweida's case to be any less absurd is because Christianity is asking for superior status. But you should not receive extra freedoms just because you have forsaken reason. The crucifix has no more right to be worn at work than the hammer and sickle. But if one of them does, they both do.
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