UK Government Lawyers Defend Law Forbidding Workplace Religious Expression

British government lawyers are arguing in favor of enforcing a ban to prevent religious symbols in the workplace, defending the law in a human rights case brought by four British Christians against it.  All four are claiming discrimination and the limitation of their freedom of speech, but not every claim is equivalent.

Nadia Eweida who claims discrimination for not being able to show a visible crucifix at work. (via The Freethinker)

Two of the claimants are Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, a British Airways employee and an NHS nurse, respectively, disciplined for refusing to remove or hide visible crucifixes while at work. The issue of which is the right balance of freedom of speech versus maintaining institutions as neutral as possible on religious matters is a difficult one. The idea of these women facing discipline for this small gesture of their personal beliefs — and not for any action on their behalf — rubs me very much the wrong way. On the other hand, one can’t help but worry that once one religious expression is allowed, any limitation will seem arbitrary. Why allow a small crucifix and not a massively bejeweled one, or a strict uncut beard? And why should religion get a special pass? If religious expression is acceptable, why not political or social? Why should a crucifix be acceptable but not a necklace spelling out “Marriage = Man + Woman”?

Sadly it seems like the lawyers are making at least a few more problematic arguments. Though they correctly point out that not being able to wear a crucifix does not prevent the private practice of the Christian faith, another argument was more problematic:

He argued that a Christian facing problems at work with religious expression needed to consider their position and that they were not discriminated against if they still have the choice of leaving their job and finding new employment.

I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot speak as to whether the fulfilment of the requirement that quitting and looking for another job be possible makes it not meet the legal definition of discrimination, but it sure isn’t enough to dismiss it from the human definition of discrimination. This is akin to a hotel not allowing entry to black people and arguing that it’s not discrimination because they have the option of other hotels in town. It’s a terrible argument, and frankly parallels one used by bigots everywhere in defense of their practices.

Then there’s this:

The QC also told the court that, unlike the Muslim headscarf for women, wearing a cross is not a “generally recognised” act of Christian worship and is not required by scripture. “A great many Christians do not insist on wearing crosses at all, still less visibly,” he said.

Many, many Muslim women don’t wear a headscarf. Many Jews wear mixed fabrics despite clear scripture against it. The popularity of a symbol, or the level to which it is required by dogma, should not influence its acceptability. Frankly, more disturbing is the implicit notion that crucifixes are not acceptable but headscarves are. If the law against religious symbols does not treat them equally, and favors some religious symbols over others, it is clearly discriminatory and should be either discarded entirely or strengthened to include all religious symbols.

Of course, the Christians in this case are in full martyr mode, with Mrs. Chaplin claiming “Britain is a very tolerant country but we seem to be more tolerant to some groups than others and at the moment we’re not at all tolerant to Christians.” This, in a country with a state church, state funding of church schools, and special seats for bishops in the House of Lords.

The strangest part of this story by far, though, is the two other people involved:

The human rights challenge also includes the cases of a Relate therapist sacked for saying he might not be comfortable giving sex counselling to homosexual couples and a Christian registrar who wishes not to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

Somehow, the lawyers for these four clients find equivalency between the first two claimants and the last two. The differences could not be more vast. It’s one thing to discuss what limits employers can place on employee freedom of expression, particularly state employees, and it’s another matter altogether when an employee wants a pass to not do their job under the cover of religious freedom. You have an obligation to execute the functions of your job. That means no unrestrained homophobic registrars, no pacifist soldiers, no Amish taxi drivers etc. If you cannot do your job, you should quit or you will be fired, legitimately.

I’m unsure of what should be the result of the first two claims. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to repeal the law forbidding workplace religious expression, which would render the matter largely moot. However I hope any repeal does not allow for religion to be used as an excuse for inexcusable negligence in the workplace.

About Claudia

I'm a lifelong atheist and a molecular biologist with a passion for science and a passionate opposition to its enemies.


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