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.

  • Richard Hughes

    This is some serious horseshit, no doubt.

  • Talyn

    Yes the legal arguments you cite are fairly ridiculous, but from what I read they were told the actual issue had nothing to do with them wearing crosses.  The two women were told not to wear any necklaces at all.  They were even given the option of wearing a cross as a pin just not necklaces because wearing dangling jewelry is considered a safety hazard.

  • Tainda

    That’s a different matter entirely then.  

    If it is because it’s a cross, that’s just wrong.  They should be allowed to wear whatever symbol they please.

  • Karen Locke

    I’m much more concerned about the latter two cases.  These people should be fired for being unwilling to do their jobs, end of discussion.  The Relate organization advertises itself as LGBT friendly; if you don’t want to counsel clients who are gay, find a place where you don’t have to do that.  Likewise, if you don’t want to adhere to the duties of a government employee, find another employer.  I once passed up what turned out to have been a lucrative job, because I’m honest and there was a conflict of interest between the hiring company and my husband’s employer.  Yes, life can limit your employment choices if your morals/ethics dictate it.  Live with it.

  • Michael

    Indeed. They are not taking legal action because crosses are banned, they’re taking legal action because crosses aren’t immune to blanket bans, whether on uniform (the airline employee) or health and safety (the nurse)

    Certain people in the media insist that nobody ever got told to remove any other jewelry under the same rules. This is a lie.

  • Christoph Donges

    It’s hard to see from the picture but I think Nadia is wearing a ‘cross’ rather than a ‘crucifix’.

  • Jonathan Dyton

    As others have said, the Nurse and BA worker have been offered other options, the nurse is simple H&S and she got offered other options, the BA worker is that jewelry shouldn’t be visible.

    They’ve both now lost multiple tribunerals and cases in a country whos employment law, was described by the same papers and politicians that support them as to weighted towards the employe, against the employer and needing the balance reinstated, depressingly politicans and papers continue to misrepresent these cases.A better story would be who’s paying their legal fees…..  

  • Steve Bowen

    This is not an issue of UK law, the jewellery cases were employer dress codes which forbade necklaces in general, not just religious ones.
    The charge of religious discrimination is completely bogus.

  • GeraardSpergen

    Some interesting perspectives.  What if they had a crucifix tattoo?

  • Troy Truchon

    Then they are Violating Leviticus 19:28, so their religious freedom isn’t really at issue here. 

  • Sam Kay

    For the therapist, it would actually be unethical for him or her to treat a client if they have a strong bias against that client. As much as we’d like to convince ourselves that therapists are perfect human beings with no issues of their own, that’s simply not true. Therapists are as biased as anyone else and it’s part of their job to recognize their biases and not negatively impact their clients. If the therapist is homophobic (or even just uncomfortable with it), he or she should not have to provide services to the client. Especially if we’re talking about sex therapy!

    As for the Christian registrar, could you please explain what that term means? The only registrars I’m familiar with are at universities. Assuming that it’s the church representative that conducts wedding ceremonies, I don’t think any religious institution should be forced to do anything that is against their religion. If the guy’s religion says homosexuality is bad and they can’t marry, then that’s his right. The homosexual community should simply get married elsewhere, by someone more tolerant. Why would they want to be married by someone that’s intolerant of their sexual orientation anyway? Anyway, if we want to keep religion out of government, we should also keep government out of religion.

    Finally, as for a ban on religious symbols in the workplace, I think this is reasonable. How would you feel being the only atheist in a workplace full of cross-wearing Christians? Headscarves… as far as I know, headscarves are worn by women for cultural reasons as well as religious. I know some Eastern Europeans wear them, and so do some Indians. For the Indians, it’s not religious as far as I know, but I may be wrong. Still, by that reasoning I suppose someone could claim that it’s OK to wear a Celtic cross as a cultural symbol rather than a religious one. So it’s a slippery slope. Ultimately, religion creates walls and an us-and-them mentality (thank you Mr. Waters!). There’s no context in which wearing religious symbols at work is positive, it just makes discrimination easier. I think perhaps the law should be that blatantly religious symbols may not be worn (Muslims can’t wear their moon & star symbol, Christians can’t wear a crosses or Jesus fish or the like, etc).

    From all I have heard and read, it sounds like England is a less religious country than America, so I don’t know why there still is a state church, or seats for bishops in the House of Lords. Do what America should do–make it explicit that religion plays no role in government. Personally (as an America) I get annoyed when I hear our presidents say “God bless America” and the like. It’s my country, but not my God, I don’t want the name of someone else’s imaginary friend being invoked by the leader of my country. Presidents (and national leaders in general) need to represent their country, NOT their religious beliefs.

  • Stev84

    You got the wedding part wrong. A registrar is a government employee who performs civil marriages and partnerships. They don’t have a religious function. On the contrary. They perform explicitly non-religious weddings.

    In pretty much all western European countries you must have a civil marriage before a religious one. Britain is a mix of that and the American system, where some large religions can perform legally valid weddings (or have a registrar present at the church wedding), but entirely civil weddings are possible too.

  • nakedanthropologist

    I believe the article is referring to a government employee who either officiates and/or assists (I’m not of the terminology) the couple with the paperwork that declares two people to be legally married in a civil ceremony – completely separate from a church employee being forced to enact a religious ceremony.  In that case, it is not only unprofessional and unethical to shirk their duties towards lgbt couples, but also illegal.

  • Glasofruix

    Breaking news, you can be legally married without involving any religious wax statue, yes even in the US. In Europe however you can’t be legally married by a pastor, priest, guru, whatever, only by a government’s official. So if the guy says he can’t marry a couple because his religion forbids him to do so, he’s not doing the job he was hired for and should be fired.

  • sailor

    Supposing it was a ban on “religious symbols ” rather than just a necklace. Would a ban not be justified? Sure we are used to crosses and they don’t phase most of us – but say some white rights religious nuts decided the swastika was his religious symbol, is that still OK? If not what is the difference in principal.
    How would you feel if you were sick in bed and the nurse took one look at you and made the sign of the cross?
    As regards the woman who would not carry out gay weddings, Vermont had this problem, simple answer – if you don’t want to do it fine, you have to appoint someone else that will. If you cannot provide the service, then face the courts. It all worked out.
    If you take up a job you many not discriminate, which means you cannot let your religious prejudices stop someone getting a service, unless at least you provide an alternative.

  • Rich Wilson

    I’ve seen “persecuted Christians” argue that the UK is trying to ban wearing crosses.  We need get the facts right on this.  The UK is declining to treat the cross as a protected religious symbol.  That’s  all.  There is no law banning the wearing of a cross in the UK.

  • Rich Wilson

    A better example of protected ‘required’ religions things would have been the Sikh dagger and turban.

  • SJH

    A private organization should be able to limit what their employees wear (obviously within reason). If a company states that they think it is offensive to ban a certain article of clothing or accessory then they should be able to do so without the federal government getting involved. However for the government to make such a requirement is simply an overreach of federal power. I do not know British law but if this is not unconstitutional then I can pretty much guarantee that I am not moving to England (not that I ever considered it).

  • Rich Wilson

    The government has not made such a requirement.  The government is simply allowing British Airways to prohibit wearing jewelry, whether it has a cross on it or not.

  • Marco

    After reading the comments, the article assumes a completely different connotation. These are not poor suppressed women but entitle christians that think because their necklace has a cross should be exempt from a company wide dress code. I suspect that dress code is not in place because of the looks but because dangling jewelry is dangerous in some workplaces.

  • Baby_Raptor

    What is it with christians and thinking laws don’t apply to them?

  • Baby_Raptor

    Well, given that the issue here is (or appears to be, correct me if I’m wrong) that dangling jewelry is a job hazard, and the christianists are just screaming persecution because they aren’t being given special privileges…There probably wouldn’t be any issue with a tattoo, because tattoos aren’t dangling jewelry. 

  • Aaron Scoggin

    If that’s the case, then the right thing was done. There’s a difference between banning cross necklaces specifically and banning all necklaces. Those people just want to cry out “intolerance!” every chance they get.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Exactly right. If part of your job requires you to do something that is somehow against your religion, then you have to choose whether to fulfill your job duties or to fulfill your religious ones. You can’t have it both ways, and if that’s the case, maybe that person should have found a job where they are free to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Most job applications have a box that says “Can you fulfill all of the responsibilities of this job with or without reasonable accommodation?”. This guy should have checked “no” if he was applying to be a counselor where he may have to give services to *gasp* gay people. It’s like me applying to McDonald’s and later saying that I won’t serve customers meat because I’m a vegetarian… But it’s okay because I can serve customers who want salad or ice cream.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    That’s pretty cool. I live in the states and my wife and I were married by a Justice of the Peace. Basically, you can only have about 10 or so witnesses with you, and for us, what looked to be an old computer room was used, but nonetheless, nothing religious was mentioned and we are now free to have our own “wedding party” whenever and however we want. 

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Er, also should mention that ours was a courthouse joining. You can have a Justice at a wedding, but who has the money for that stuff anymore..

  • Kimpatsu

    Christ, this article is completely wrong! Nadia Edweila was disciplined because the British Airways uniform code expressly prohibited dangling jewellery. She as told she could wear a lapel cross, but she refused. She was also told she could wear the necklace provided it was tucked inside her regulation neckerchief, and she again refused, because she wanted to “tell people that Jesus loved them”. (IOW, she wanted to proselytise passengers at check-in).

    Shirley Chaplin was a nurse, for whom ALL dangling jewellery was prohibited.
    Gary McFarlane was on a training course to become a relationship counsellor, when he opined that he could not offer treatment to same-sex couples.
    The only one of the four with a glimmer of a case is Lillian Ladele, who was already a registrar before same-sex unions became legal in 2007, because it was the terms of her employment that changed, and she had no say in the matter. Even so, that’s like hoteliers who used to refuse accommodation to black people until the race relations law of 1968. Subsequent refusal was a criminal offence. The law changed, and Ladele’s job description changed with it. Tough.
    As to Cameron’s posturing, there is no law prohibiting workplace expressions of faith, so there is nothing to repeal. He is merely posturing to the Daily Mail brigade. It is amazing, however, how much these True Xians (TM) have lied and misrepresented the facts of their cases.

  • Robster

    Aren’t those afflicted with christian belief supposed to be god’s special people and therefore get better non-service from the god fairy, the dead magic jew and the ghostly fantasy?

  • Robster

    Yeah, it’s not quite as disgusting as the “dead bloke on a stake” figuine they all seem to adore.

  • Michael

    British Sikhs tend to carry specially designed penknives. It works.

  • Gavin Millar

    How many straight people, no matter how tolerant, would honestly feel comfortable giving sex counselling to a gay couple? Seriously. 

  • Michael

     If you have a tattoo on your forearm you can’t be a cop. Be it a crucifix or anything else.

  • Rich Wilson

    I don’t think I’d be comfortable giving sex counseling to anybody.  But that would have nothing to do with the couple being gay.

    You would find a gay couple less comfortable than a straight couple?  Seriously.

  • rich_bown

    As others have said, the first two here were disciplined for not following a workplace uniform dress code. This has been “spun” in the UK by those of religious persuasion to portray the two women as victims and turn the issue into a religious persecution one. Every court and tribunal in the UK has stated that religion has no issue in the reason for dismissal. Also there is no law here banning religiosity symbols in the workplace. Dangling jewellery can pose a risk in some professions and the employers in question are simply making sure their employees are safe in the workplace.

  • oli kenton

    I got married by a registrar at a science museum in the UK. Not only are civil weddings becoming the norm, but there are a whole bunch of places licenced as official wedding venues, stately homes, castles, museums, and so on.
    Of course, all our guests wore steampunk costumes and we went for a ride on the museums replica of the Rocket (i.e. Stephenson’s steam train) at the museum before having the reception in a different museum. Not one mention of deities and all the costs for hiring the venues went to worthy causes (i.e. museums).
    And it was awesome!

  • oli kenton

    I would. Honestly. I don’t see the problem.

  • Sindigo

    That’s how I understood the case until the news this week. I’m not sure why it’s being spun this way now.

    EDIT: Yes I am. It sells newspapers.

  • Sandy Kokch

    Firstly look at the source….the Telegraph aka The Conservative Theocrat Daily. This is the newspaper that acts as a mouthpiece for the shabby two bit theocrat Baroness Warsi and her clownshoes entourage. This is the newspaper that ran the disgusting “slave owner” slur article against Richard Dawkins. This is the rag that regularly snarks at atheism and atheists.

    Second look at the plaintiffs. ALL of them were represented by the same small group of “Christian” lawyers who work for the legal firms with links to US evangelical orgs, as was revealed in a Channel 4 investigative news piece last year, where members of the firms admitted on camera that they co-ordinate with and take advice from US evangelical lobbying groups.  In each of the four cases the courts have already ruled against these waaaah waaaah wonks, and in each case have already determined that their claim of anti-Christian bias has NO foundation in fact.

    Finally….as for Cameron…..well he can kiss his ass goodbye come the next election. So whatever repeals he is trying to pass had better be done quickly.

  • Rufus

    Generally (extrapolating after having asked all (i.e. both) of the Sikhs who I know who work in th e same building as me) the popular options are either to have a small (3.5-5″) kirpan that is sharp but has the blade welded into the scabbard (i.e. put beyond practical use) or to carry one with a blade of less than 3″ in which case it falls into the same legal category as a Swiss Army knife (similar to the one that I quite routinely carry).

  • Banana

    Not true; my brother in law is a cop and he has tattoos on both of his forearms.  It may vary by city/state but it’s not across the board.

  • Stev84

     He is probably just a relationship counselor who immediately equated “gay =sex”

  • Rich Wilson

    It becomes an issue in North American high schools which have zero tolerance polices that will get kids expelled for drawing a picture of a knife, let alone having an actual blade, no matter how long it is or how impossible it is to draw.

  • Michael

    Since you say city/state I’m going to guess you’re not talking about the UK.

  • kaydenpat

    Can you not see a difference between wearing a cross at work (first 2 cases) and actively discriminating against homosexuals (last 2 cases)?  I’m not understanding on what grounds the government can prohibit people from wearing religious symbols.  What about religious tattoos?  What about Sikh men who cover their heads?  Rastafarians who do not cut their hair?

    I have no problem with the therapist and registrar being forced out of their jobs if they cannot treat all people equally because of their religious beliefs.  The law should be tailored to those types of people.

  • kaydenpat

    I would have no problem giving counseling to a gay couple even though I’m straight. 

  • kaydenpat

    Okay.  The way you explained it makes the law make sense. 

  • kaydenpat

    Agree.  Why doesn’t he get a different job since part of his job requires him to marry gay couples? 

  • Banana

    Sorry, didn’t realize you were in the UK!