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Crossed Wires

This week the European Court of Human Rights gave its ruling on a quartet of cases loosely bundled under the heading of religious rights (in this case, Christian rights, although the court decision sets a precedent for similar issues regarding any religion).

What is surprising is not the decisions themselves, but the media response. For example the Telegraph reports: Christian Wins Right to Wear Cross at Work; whilst the Guardian plumps for: Landmark Victory for BA Employee over Right to Wear a Cross at Work. Google the subject and see how many websites and news articles lead with this triumphant message.

Whilst true as far as they go, these headlines are a remarkably skewed way of looking at the overall position. The other three cases failed before the ECHR, and it’s as important to recognise why those claims were rejected as it is to consider why Nadia Eweida succeeded.

The four cases before the courts were, in summary:

  • A BA worker told that wearing a cross was, in essence, against company policy and not projecting the right image;
  • An NHS worker told that wearing a cross was against health and safety regulations;
  • A Relate counsellor who was unhappy about counselling homosexual couples, for reasons of religious conscience;
  • A marriage registrar who similarly refused to perform services for homosexuals.

The BBC has a more detailed summary of each case here.

The BA employee, Ms Eweida, succeeded in her appeal to the ECHR, but a very similar claim by her counterpart in the NHS was rejected. The court, approaching the cases in a balanced way, ruled that there was no evidence that the wearing of a cross would have any impact on BA’s corporate image, but that health and safety concerns were sufficient to justify the ban in the case of the Health Service. The difference was that BA’s preferences did not override Ms Eweida’s religious conviction, but in a case where there was potential danger to patients, this overrode the employee’s personal feelings.

With regard to the third and fourth case above, the European Union and the UK have considerable legislation to prevent discrimination on numerous grounds: gender, race, sexuality, age, and indeed religion. There is a very clear distinction here between the right not to be discriminated against – protected in law – and the right to invoke religion as a reason to discriminate against others. Religious sensibilities and conscience do not trump the law, perhaps thankfully given how widely they can vary from person to person.

In the broader view, the  ramifications of the courts’ decision are less that an overt display of religion is an inalienable right, and more that subjective sensibilities – whether of individuals or of corporations – do not take precedence over the legal rights or safety of others.

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