On 15th January 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on 4 important cases involving British Christians. One case was won, three were lost. The European Evangelical Alliance had been following these cases for years.
Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee, and Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, had been prevented from wearing cross necklaces at work. Ms Eweida won her case, the judges believing her rights were more important than a company’s corporate image. Ms Chaplin lost on health & safety grounds.
Gary McFarlane, a relationships counsellor, was dismissed for voicing concerns about offering sex therapy to same sex couples. Lillian Ladele, a registrar of births, deaths & marriages, felt compelled to resign when her job changed to include registering same sex civil partnerships and she faced discipline and possible dismissal for refusing to do so. In both these cases, a majority of judges ruled that there were competing rights to balance and that they chose to allow Britain the flexibility / “margin of appreciation” to allow concerns about equality on the grounds of sexuality to override the conscience of these individuals.
The Good News
The British government had argued that a Christian could not state his/her freedom had been violated if the particular action (e.g. wearing a cross) or belief (e.g. conservative views on sexuality) were not a core, established part of the faith’s requirements for the majority of Christians. The judges rejected this argument entirely. If an individual believer can argue that a belief or action is vital to their faith, then it is valid to consider the case.
The judges also rejected the argument that an individual should simply resign if their job made requirements of them that their conscience did not like. Instead, each case must be considered thoroughly to see if the restriction of the individual is necessary.
It was also good that the judges made it clear that their judgements were to apply only in the United Kingdom. Other countries, with less rigid attitudes towards equality legislation, would be allowed to settle such cases in different ways. However, do British Christians / Muslims / Jews and other now have to conclude that their freedom of conscience is of no importance compared to the sensitivities of the homosexual community?
The Bad News
The European Evangelical Alliance is, of course, aware of some variety of views on cases like these among Evangelical Christians across Europe. Expectations vary on how much one should be able to express faith at work. But there are important principles at stake because freedom of religion and conscience is being redefined. For some nations, gay rights seem to be trumping freedom of conscience rights. Countries seem incapable of finding ways to fairly handle diversity, even though their European Convention of Human Rights obligations require them to be neutral and to maximise the human rights of all sides in disputes as much as possible. We would particularly welcome the Ladele case being re-examined in the European Court’s Grand Chamber as we believed it to be particularly clear cut, a view shared by 2 dissenting judges.
The European Evangelical Alliance is sad and frustrated that the European Court of Human Rights judgements failed to challenge the fact that there had been no or inadequate attempts to work out fair, compromise solutions in these 4 cases, which would have avoided them having to go to court in the first place. The established, legal term is seeking “reasonable accommodation.” There was surely a way for Ms Chaplin to wear a cross that was safe and hygienic. There was surely a way for Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane to treat same sex couples with respect but to pass them discreetly on to be helped by colleagues. Reasonable accommodation applies to both employee and employer, requiring them to try to resolve disputes before moving to dismissal or legal proceedings. In these cases, which parties were unwilling to explore solutions? Bearing this question in mind, were the European Court’s judgements fair?
Freedom of conscience is a foundational human right for all. Diversity of belief is a reality. Governments are meant to create the right circumstances for everyone’s freedom of conscience to be protected and for clashes of rights to be handled with respect and fairness. This has not happened in these cases.
Article 27 of the Global Charter of Conscience says “It is never an advance in human rights when special protection for some people becomes oppression or discrimination for others.”
The European Evangelical Alliance will continue to reflect on these cases with our religious liberty partners, seeking wisdom both on these individual cases and the wider challenge of promoting understanding of the importance of freedom of religion and conscience for all and of the need for reasonable accommodation to be implemented where disputes arise. We are delighted that the Global Charter of Conscience promoting a civil public square, with freedom of conscience for all, has been appreciated by politicians and civil servants in many European nations. The challenge now is to make a civil public square a reality.
EEA Religious Liberty Coordinator