Gay Marriage Trumps Freedom of Conscience in European Court

Standing Against Christian Persecution

Gay marriage trumped freedom of conscience in the European Court of Human Rights yesterday.

The Court handed down rulings on four contentious cases which had been brought before it by British citizens. In three of the cases, it ruled with the British government and against the citizens.

Here’s how it went:

1. British airways employee Nadia Ewelda won the right to wear a cross around her neck to work without being fired. Part of the reasoning was that other British Airways employees were allowed to wear religious symbols of other faiths, including turbans and scarves.

2. A British nurse lost the right to wear a cross around her neck to work. The Court based this ruling on the idea that the cross might somehow pose a job hazard by accidentally touching an open wound or something.

3. Two other British citizens, a registrar and a relationship counselor, lost their cases. They had been fired for refusing, on the basis of their religious beliefs, to participate in civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples.

Religious groups are hailing these rulings as “victories,” based on the lone case that allowed a flight attendant to wear a cross to work. This which confounds me. Christians consistently lose in the courts, as the many atheists who buzz by this blog every time I write on the subject try to remind us, and I think these rulings are no exception to that.

One of the things that struck me about these rulings is that they were so specific. Evidently, the European Court of Human Rights does not rule on broad issues of law in the same manner that our Supreme Court does. These rulings were basically, “We uphold this case, but not this.” If the court ruled on principles of law rather than just the specific cases, it didn’t come through in the news stories I read.

I’m not sure what that means in terms of the scope of these rulings. If these truly are specific rulings on specific cases and not on broad points of law, then that could be significant in terms of impact. I’m not saying that’s how it is. I don’t know.

I may not understand the scope of these rulings, but I do know that they were not a “victory” for Christians or freedom of conscience. I also think they were a harbinger of what’s to come for all of us.

Advocates of gay marriage here in the United States are quick to say that re-writing the legal definition of marriage will not impact religious liberty, that no one will be forced to perform gay marriages if it is against their conscience. This clearly flies in the face of the collective experience throughout the Western world.

So far as I know, in every country that has legalized gay marriage, or, as in the case with this ruling, civil partnerships, it is just a matter of time, and usually not much time, before people are losing their jobs because they do not want to participate in performing these marriages.

The Los Angeles Times article describing these court cases reads in part:

By Emily Alpert
January 15, 2013, 1:14 p.m.
A Christian employee was wronged when British Airways insisted she remove the small cross she wore around her neck, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.

But judges rejected claims by three other British Christians who claimed they had been discriminated against in the workplace, including two who had refused to provide their services to couples of the same sex.

Religious freedom is “one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies,” the European court wrote, but religious freedom can nonetheless be restricted where it “impinges on the rights of others.”

Judges decided 5-2 in favor of Nadia Eweida, who was sent home without pay for violating the British Airways uniform code more than six years ago. At the time, its rules banned any visible jewelry. Eweida returned to work several months later after the company changed its policies, but continued to press her case against the British government for failing to protect her freedom of religion.

The European court found that British courts had failed to strike a fair balance between her rights and British Airways’ wish to “project a certain corporate image.” Other employees had already been allowed to wear other kinds of religious apparel, including turbans and head scarves, without any impact on the British Airways brand, it added. The court ordered the British government to award Eweida more than $2,600 in damages and $40,000 for expenses.

“I feel vindicated, that Christians have been vindicated, both here and in Europe as well,” Eweida told the BBC after the decision was issued, a cross visible around her neck.

Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that he was “delighted” by Tuesday’s decision, a rare bit of British government praise for the European court. The ruling was also cheered by rights groups.

“Nadia Eweida wasn’t hurting anyone and was perfectly capable of doing her job whilst wearing a small cross,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties group Liberty. “British courts lost their way in her case and Strasbourg has actually acted more in keeping with our traditions of tolerance.”

Religious conservatives were also pleased Eweida had triumphed, but their enthusiasm was dampened by the fact that the European judges turned down the three other discrimination claims. Although it sided with Eweida, the court said a British hospital was justified in barring a nurse from wearing a crucifix because it could touch an open wound or a patient might pull on it. Protecting health and safety were more weighty reasons to ban the cross than buffing a corporate image, it concluded.

Judges also rejected the claims of a relationship counselor and a former registrar who balked at providing their services to same-sex couples. The counselor was fired for violating company policies that he had agreed to; the registrar was disciplined and warned that if she did not perform civil partnerships, she would be terminated.

Christian groups argued that other registrars could have performed the service. “What this case shows is that Christians with traditional beliefs about marriage are at risk of being left out in the cold,” said Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, in a statement Tuesday. (Read more here.)

  • neenergyobserver

    That was what struck me as well. These cases are so very specific, like what we would expect from a JP court, this is an appeals court, I think. If so, it seems to me that there is essentially no law, just rulings in Europe. Which means you have no idea what is or isn’t legal.

    A law of men, not law comes to mind.

  • Anne

    Do you even bother to read these stories before you blog about them? None of these cases has anything to do with “gay marriage” trumping some other right. Great Britain doesn’t have gay marriage, nor did it have gay marriage years ago when these cases commenced.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Anne, I’m aware of this, but considering the PM’s reaction to the ruling and the current moves to re-write the legal definition of marriage in the UK, I thought that the head was actually more to the point the way I wrote it. What I mean by that is that the case applies to legal partnerships, but will apply even more so to gay marriage, as have similar cases in other countries.

      My point that legalizing gay marriage, once it becomes legalized, has a track record of quickly moving into abrogating private conscience by forcing people who have conscience objections to it to participate in it stands. So does the implication which I didn’t say, but which I do think is true, that, claims to the contrary by gay marriage advocates are a ruse designed to smooth the process of changing the law, not a promise that the people who make these claims intend to keep.

  • Manny

    Why any country would agree to be part of some court other than their own national court system is beyond me. I thought the European Union were strictly an economic and monetery system. I have to apologize to those guys who fear a world government. I used to think they were slightly nutso. Frankly they are proving to be right. I already think our Federal government is way too in our local dedcisions. If the US ever became part of some world/continental/hemispheric government, that will be it for me. I will renounce my citizenship and look elsewhere. And I’m sure a world government is part of some Liberal’s dream.

  • FW Ken

    Great Britain has had civil partnerships for some years, marriage in all but name. The principle remains.

    I would not have ruled for the airlines worker. She knew the dress code and should have observed it while proceeding with her case. The nurse in a similar manner. Both rules were ridiculous, of course. but did not enjoin sinful behavior (as the HHS rules do), nor prohibit the performance of a positive Christian duty.

    The registrar is a more complicated case and demonstrates the malice and destructive obsession of same-sex marriage advocates, who are actually bullies demanding the all registrar’s do their bidding. Of course, I don’t see why some ritual in a local registrar’s office makes any sense at all. Fill out the forms, issue the license and wish them luck. We see a similar situation with pharmacists who decline to fill immoral prescriptions. Why can’t you go down the street to one of the many pharmacies where you can get your drugs? Why must every doctor commit abortions? Why must every hospital provide a site for murder?

    Finally, the case of the relationships counselor demonstrates conclusively that the endgame is exclusion of Christians from the professions and the larger society. Why would a relationship counselor be competent to work with relationships of which they do not approve? Of course, this is simple bullying.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Ken, I don’t agree with about the lady and the cross.

      If the lady wants to wear a cross, she should be able to. One of the reasons the court ruled in her favor was because the airlines allowed members of other religions to wear their religious paraphernalia, including things like turbans and scarves which were much more visible. To not allow the cross was such obvious anti-Christian discrimination that even this court recognized it.

  • JeffreyRO5

    For the life of me, I don’t why religious folks don’t just mind their own business with their personal religious beliefs. Why must the rest of have to conform to YOUR personal beliefs? I find it ironic that a woman wearing a cross, in defiance of the Bible’s prohibition against graven images, is complaining. She’s not a Christian, whatever she is. These people just want attention.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      She’s wearing a cross around her own neck. How is that not “minding her own business with her personal religious beliefs?”

      It appears to me that the person who is trying to interfere with other people’s “business” is you.”

      As for your comments about graven images and whether or not this lady is a Christian, refer to my second statement above.

  • FW Ken

    Rebecca -

    The reason I disagree with you is that, unlike Sikh men with their turbans and Muslim women with their scarves, Christians do not have a positive duty to wear a neck cross. Perhaps she should have a right to do what she wants to do, but that’s not necessarily a religious right.

    The larger question is what sort of witness is born by the Christians affected by the various cases. Is it a good witness to demand our own way on matters not essential to our faith. What if the BA employee had removed the necklace and worked while she pursued her case? Day by day her co-workers and supervisors would have interacted with a Christian willing to do to some lengths for her Faith. Since she went back to BA when their rules changed, it appears there was no malice on the company’s part.

    The cooperation with evil inherent in the case of the registrar and the counselor is a very different matter. But now I have a positive duty to get to my job. :-)

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Ken, I think you are using the logic of the original discriminators. Your argument limits freedom of expression, which rests in the individual, and freedom of religion, which also rests in the individual, to what is determined “essential” by a party outside the individual. It makes no sense legally to vest the right of individual freedom of religious expression in some undetermined church hierarchy. That is not freedom of expression at all. At bottom, in a free society it is up to the individual Sikhs and Muslims to decide what part of their faith they will and will not accede to.You may not be aware of this, but not all Muslim women consider the scarves to be an essential component of their faith.

      Freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and expression are individual rights. Christians should be afforded those freedoms under the law.

  • FW Ken

    But for the record, I absolutely do believe that persecution and marginalization of Christians is the endgame for same-ses marriage.

    • Sus

      Don’t forget there are many gays that are Christians. They don’t want to marginalize anything.

  • FW Ken

    Rebecca – I do know that not all Muslim women wear the hajib. I had thought that was a factor that differed by sect (aka “denomination”) of Islam, but reading up a bit, it does appear to be, in some cases at least, a matter of personal choice. It’s not in the Qu’ran. Even so, I suspect cultural and social pressures mitigate against it being a free choice. In any case, wearing a neck cross does not have the same religious background in Christianity.

    Not sure what church hierarchy (undetermined or otherwise) has to do with this. I didn’t mention hierarchy, although I do refuse to pit personal choice against lawful Church authority; that’s the good basis for cafeteria Catholicism, and to me that’s a waste of time. Anyway, I don’t accept that anything I want to do is my right to do and I specifically don’t accept that a privately decided upon action, even when involving Christian images, is intrinsically religious.

    To me the questions are two-fold: am I under obligation by scripture or Tradition to wear Christian symbols. God told us some things in the bible about flaunting our faith in public and obeying legitimate authority. He also told us to to confess Christ before the world. Now, in my Texas, neck crosses are jewelry that have no relationship to one’s faith. NONE. So I’m a bit unimpressed over this argument to start. But I raise again the question: what bears witness to Christ. Maybe in Europe, I’ll concede that. But does bucking employment rules give a good witness? I’m not saying don’t fight them, and maybe quitting your job does bear witness. But to me, humble obedience to a rule that should not offend Christian conscience is not religious liberty. “I want to do it” is not adequate defense.

    For all I’ve gone on about it, the jewelry cases are not that significant to me. The registrar who won’t do civil unions is much more interesting, and I think, significant.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Ken, you’re mixing religious teaching with civil law here. The right to free expression and freedom or speech, particularly the right to religious freedom of speech and expression, can not be determined by a particular teaching. It is an individual right. I’m not sure why you’re having so much trouble grasping this.

  • FW Ken

    No, I grasp it. But, we belong to another kingdom, and are enjoined by our faith to obey laws that do not compel sin or restrict us from religious duties.

    Religious freedom is a complex issue: do Jehovah’s Witness people have rights to withhold brood transfusions from their children? Can Pentecostals withhold all medical treatment in favor of prayer? What about peyote cults? Snake-handling groups? Mormon polygamists? Secularists routinely point to legal restrictions on these groups (supported by Christians, by and large) that set a groundwork justification for restricting other religions.

    Well, I do aver that as a legislator, you are more in tune with legal issues. I’m pretty good with criminals though. :-)