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Cameron said he would legislate to protect religious rights at work: so why did his lawyers in Strasbourg this week deny the existence of these rights?

This is one promise Cameron has to be held to

By on Friday, 7 September 2012

'The kind of liberal conservatism David Cameron espouses is a mishmash of the good and bad, and is completely divorced from Christian spirituality' (PA)

'The kind of liberal conservatism David Cameron espouses is a mishmash of the good and bad, and is completely divorced from Christian spirituality' (PA)

The mills of European justice grind exceeding slow, in Strasbourg at least; but the by now well-known test cases of four Christians whose rights freely to practise the Christian religion are being challenged by this government (three of them have actually lost their jobs for sticking by their faith) have now been heard, together, by the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg. Judgment will be handed down at a later date; how much later remains to be seen; this could go on for some time.

Let there be no doubt about what is going on; forget what Cameron has said about backing the rights of Christians, and legislating to protect them (yet another promise which has not been and probably will not be kept). The British government has actually argued in this case, through its lawyers (who were presumably arguing what they were told to argue) that Christians should leave their beliefs at home or get another job if their employers don’t like them.

Christians should accept, government lawyers have actually pronounced in open court, that a personal expression of faith at work, such as wearing a cross, means they might have to resign and get another job: there was, they argued, a “difference between the professional and private sphere. That simply means that the government says that Christians may not fully practice their faith at all (since we believe that there should never be any such separation, that there is no moment of our lives to which our faith is not relevant). This, these expensive QCs argued on the government’s behalf, despite Cameron’s promise that he would change the law “to protect religious expression at work”.

This is what, according to the Telegraph, his lawyers (I repeat, his lawyers) said. James Eadie QC, told the court that the refusal to allow an NHS nurse and a British Airways worker to visibly wear a crucifix at work “did not prevent either of them practising religion in private”, which would be protected by human rights law. 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 (my italics).

“There are,” he went on, “two aspects to this part of the argument. Firstly, resigning and moving to another job and secondly (actually, not secondly at all, he’s simply repeating the same argument because he has no other) there is clear and consistent jurisprudence that the person who asserts religious rights may on occasion have to take account of their position”.

“There is a difference,” he went on, “between the professional sphere where your religious freedoms necessarily abut on to and confront other interests and the private sphere. The employees concerned could indeed pursue all the generally recognised manifestations of their religion outside the work sphere.”

He then went on to expound a familiar argument, one that always intensely irritates me because of its total ignorance of how religion actually functions. The argument is that it doesn’t say in the Bible that women should wear a cross at work (duh!!) so it’s not required by their religion. Unlike the Muslim headscarf for women (actually, he’s wrong about that too), 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. So? A great many Muslim women don’t insist on wearing a hijab, either. As for “required by scripture”, there are whole areas of Christian moral behaviour which isn’t in the nature of things actually specified in the biblical texts; that’s not how scripture works (not Christian scripture, anyhow). The Bible isn’t, as someone once put it, “maker’s instructions”. The depressing things about this man’s legal arguments is their utter superficiality, the way in which they simply miss the whole point, not just about Christianity but about any religion.

Consider some of the injustices the court considered on Tuesday.

Shirley Chaplin was moved away from nursing to a clerical role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after refusing to remove a necklace bearing a crucifix. She was subsequently fired, after 30 years of nursing. “It is insulting, humiliating and degrading,” she protests. “My Christian faith isn’t something that you put on and then take off to go to work”.

There is also the case of the Relate therapist who lost his job for saying, though not to his employer (who simply happened to hear of the conversation at third hand), that he might not be comfortable giving sex counselling to homosexuals. Gary McFarlane, a Bristol marriage counsellor, was sacked because his employer, who was already suspicious because of his open Christianity, learned that he had privately expressed his reluctance to give “sex therapy” to homosexual couples. Reluctance!! “Sex therapy”!! Ye Gods!! Of course he was reluctant.

Finally, there is the case of the Christian registrar who refuses to effect civil partnerships. Lillian Ladele, a registrar in Islington, was dismissed after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds. Dinah Rose, her QC, said the government’s argument that an employer could discriminate against someone because of their religious opinions as long as the employee was able to leave their job and find another one elsewhere was “startling”, and argued, surely unanswerably, that “an employer could have a policy of refusing to employ Jews because other employers will employ them”. Quite.

There has been support from some MPs for these people, but not enough. Most notably, David Davis (who seems for a politician to have been talking a great deal of common sense lately, mostly implicitly or explicitly critical of the Prime Minister) said he expected Mr Cameron to stick to his recent promises to protect religious rights. “The idea that British citizens are not free to express their faith in the workplace is an extraordinary and oppressive interpretation of the law,” he said. “The Prime Minister made it plain in the House of Commons that the Government believes the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace is a vital freedom. One therefore has to ask why the Government’s lawyers are the last to know.”

When this case had been raised in the Commons by Mr Davis in July, the Prime Minister was quite unambiguous in his support for the right to wear religious symbols at work. He said this: “I think it is an absolutely vital freedom“. He insisted that the Government would change the law if necessary to make sure employees can wear religious symbols at work. “What we will do,” he said, “is that if it turns out that the law has the intention of banning the display of religious symbols in the workplace, as has come out in this case, then we will change the law and make clear that people can wear religious symbols at work”. Note those words “what we will do”: so why doesn’t he do it? And why has he sent his laywers to Strasbourg, to oppose these four Christians rather than supporting them (or just staying out of the way)?

These are not rhetorical questions; I really would like an answer to them. There must be one. Did he mean what he said? If not, why say it, so clearly and unambiguously? He could easily have slithered out of any such commitment; Heaven knows, he’s done that often enough. Does anyone out there actually know the answer? Can anyone explain? Anyone? Me, I’m stumped.

  • Alexander VI

    “The nurse was given the option of wearing a Christian cross stitched visibly onto her uniform.”
    If the nurse refused this option then she is an idiot. 

  • W Oddie

    Probably because it would make him look like Anthony Eden.

  • W Oddie

    ALL quotations are “out of context”, such a silly expresion. Think about it: to quote MEANS to remove a passage from its context so that it may be put into another one which may illuminate it it may or may not in fact: but that’s where any criticism should be directed). A complaint that something is taken out of context is simply a polemical device to deny the relevance of the quotations concerned.

  • W Oddie

    You say that ‘selected sentences extracted from speeches or statements can be very misleading’. Of course they CAN be: but they may well be highly illuminating. It depends on whether the point being made is valid, and the quotations concerned are being perceptively used. In this case they were: you are just wrong, not surprising since what you are interested in achieving  is not the truth but simply being annoying. I should by rights be ignoring you, my usual practice with trolls of your sort. From now on I shall.

  • W Oddie

    And I suggest that everyone else does: then she’ll give it up. What she wants is a row.

  • Acleron

    The quote is ‘out of context’. The context is the part before or after the cited part which is required to give the correct interpretation of the original. It is the quote mining which is the polemical device, not the expression itself.

  • W Oddie

    Pretty naif (I’m not naive, not being a woman) no doubt: but hope springs eternal, encouraged by the fact that there have been and still are decent and honourable politicians, who whether they succeed or not, do think that keeping political promises is something one ought at least to attempt. It is profoundly dangerous to keep on spreading the idea that all politicians are dishonourable: the wide currency of this palpably untrue notion is one of the reasons our democracy is in crisis.

  • la catholic state

    No formal evidence…but plenty of anecdotal evidence from the internet.  A survey of atheists on this subject would be most interesting.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Meena: You have not answered either of my questions and I therefore assume you have no answer.  The point is that if Cameron did not make any statement to support the wearing of crosses then we are left with the fact that he has allowed his lawyers to undermine the right to wear them.  If that is the case then we can no longer regard him as muddle-headed about religion but downright anti-Christian.

  • teigitur

    Vices Versa. Dr Oddie, it is because many, though not all are without thought for anyone else but themselves that our democracy is in trouble.
     Palpably untrue?  Laughable.

  • Meena

    He’s too plump for that.

  • Meena

    Quotations only show their full meanings when viewed in the wider context in which they are used. We often hear this said by religious apologists when Biblical quotations and past statements of the Church are presented to them.

  • Meena

    No. I am actually looking for information.

  • Meena

    The hazards of jewellery in hospitals are very well known. This is the reason why medical staff are not generally allowed to wear it.
    Wedding and engagement rings (or at least the former) are generally allowed, but there are several situations where there is a requirement that the ring(s) be covered under a material such as adhesive tape.

  • Meena

    It is not true that Christianity is singled out by atheists. Dawkins (or the late C. Hitchens, I forget which) for example places Christianity second in the list of evil religions: “the second most evil religion” – his words, not mine.

    But of course in our society it is Christianity and especially Catholicism that is the big religious kid on the block (at the moment!).

  • GFFM

    Fine column–absolutely spot on. Benedict XVI observes frequently that Western democracies and allegedly free Western institutions are moving toward endowing only religious toleration on their “subjects.” Authentic democratic thought is truly moving backwards. We have a full frontal assault on religious liberty throughout the Western democracies and it’s creating real time consequences in parts of the world where religious minorities are being violently oppressed. If free societies are rolling back their view of religious freedom who will defend those being massacred, tortured, discriminated against in Africa, Malaysia, China, Egypt? Answer: no one. We need only be reminded on the recent banning of circumcision in Germany, and the HHS mandate the Obama administration is shoving down Americans’ throats. Expect more assaults and more obfuscation and flim-flam artistry from the likes of Cameron’s minions and Obama’s apparatchiks.

  • la catholic state

    Many atheists are actually very pro-Islam. (You may be one of them). That doesn’t mean to say they believe in it.  And of course there are more authentic atheists who truly dislike all religions equally, and the very notion of God. 

    Christianity is not the big kid on the block…at least not in the declining West.  Secularism is. 

  • la catholic state

    Strange then isn’t it that Sikhs are allowed to wear bracelets when working as NHS doctors.  And if your answer to that is that they are required to by their religion….then the NHS is putting ideology above health and safety precautions.  What are patients to make of that?!

  • Acleron

    How can we be moving backwards in any respect to religion? For nearly 2000 years we’ve had christianity in some power in this country and before that some shaman or other was trying to frighten those who didn’t agree with him. So we cannot move back by ridding ourselves of religion, there is nothing comparable to go back to. For a considerable  amount of the time that christianity was around, the majority of society was oppressed and downtrodden. Who’d want to revisit that?

    In three out of the four areas you mention it’s religion battling religion and I could add more, Pakistant, India, Northern Ireland. See now why a lot of people don’t want anything to do with religion?

  • Meena

    it’s creating real time consequences in parts of the world where religious minorities are being violently oppressed.”

    The violent oppression is often imposed by religious majorities.

    This of course was the case in Europe some time ago, when the Christian majority oppressed a non-Christian minority, and also any Christian “deviants” (now often considered to have been fine and sensible people) from some of the silly dogmas of the time.

    The religious mutilation of children’s genitalia is outrageous.

  • TreenonPoet

     I understand that the NHS modified the rules concerning jewelery so that bracelets could be worn as long as they are pushed up the arm while a patient is treated. This presumably applies to any medics, though is most relevant to Sikhs.

  • scary goat

     This is very similar to something I said a couple of days ago.  Education and media. But how can we diminish their power in these crucial areas?

  • Meena

    You might cease to like it after your wound has acquired a serious infection.

    The hospital also might not like to spend the money clearing-up your infection.

  • Meena
  • Meena

    Many atheists are actually very pro-Islam.”

    I have yet to meet one.

  • TreenonPoet

     According to the Daily Telegraph, David Cameron said “What we will do is that if it turns out that the law has the intention [of banning the display of religious symbols in the workplace], as has come out in this case, then we will change the law and make clear that people can wear religious symbols at work.”

    It is surprising that David Cameron did not already know that people are generally allowed to wear religious symbols at work and that the law has no intention of specifically banning their display and contravening human rights, but given that he did use the conditional “if”, his promise is fulfilled by default. Oddie’s “yet another promise which has not been and probably will not be kept” refers to a promise that Cameron did not make, and Cameron’s support for the protection of employers against unreasonable demands from employees indicates that Cameron would never have intentionally made such a promise.

  • VeroniqueD

    To begin with, the wearing of jewellery is actually the issue.  A Health and Safety issue. Now I will admit to smothering my comments about H&S. Very over the top in my view; however we do have governments who pander to the wild and woolly side if there is a smidgen of a vote to be had.

    There will always be a problem because Christians and Muslims (I don’t think Jews) are enjoined to proselytise far and wide, witness for their god(s) and abase themselves in his/her name. And woe betide the recipient who merely rejoins with ‘on your bike, mate’.I always thought that religion was something one did in private and in a church, cathedral or abbey. It appears that religion is something you now need to confront others with, bash them over the head with a bible, koran or whatever and make devil signs against non compliance.I have been subject to this – obviously on the receiving end of religious froth and bubble. I would love to say I was offended but then I remember that no one has the right to be not offended and I sigh instead.

    I have several lapel pins in the letter A. I purchased them from and I wear them with a certain panache. However I do not work as such. If I did and an employer said ‘please take that pin off. As you bend down over a passenger, it is possible your pin may catch clothing or scrape a cheek.’ A fair call, I think. Basically that is all that is being said about the gold cross whatshername was wearing. Apart from being inflammatory that is.

    The preciousness that is starting to develop between the Christians in this country and those of us who really don’t give a damn is getting my goat. Let me be an atheist please with no government or political interference and please don’t marginalise me. I am normal. Get used to it.

    All four of these complainants (no longer plaintiffs) have antagonised a larger group of people. I will merely watch with interest over the next decade.

  • Parasum

    I see what you mean, but officially, it very definitely is. And it has been the religion of the peoples of this island for about 1,500 years. Most people in it are baptised as Christians. Is religious traditions are overwhelmingly, Christian, not Jewish, Muslim, or atheist. There are even  two established Churches. The popular culture is not Christian, but in most other ways – the visible ones – ISTM Christianity is in possession. 

  • Parasum

    However do you come to that conclusion LOL ? 

    If you’re going to say a poster  “hide[s] this agenda under a mantle of extraordinary and far-fetched concern for minority religions and blatant discrimination against Christians”

    - how about making good those claims of yours ? 

    “Why don’t you just admit your antipathy to Christ and His followers?!”

    ## Where do you get that from LOL ?

  • Acleron

    Yes, let’s not have educated people, they can think for themselves too much.

  • Acleron

    You have already admitted you have no evidence for this.

    And the rise in individual wealth and freedom matches the rise in secularism, strange that isn’t it?

  • Lewispbuckingham

    “did not prevent either of them  practising religion in private’ Can anyone explain?
     Perhaps the good QC thinks that religion and sex are the same and both are to be practiced in private, or in a Boeing toilet where necessary.
     At the risk of being disingenuous could Cameron be orchestrating the weakest of arguments so that the European Court may reject them? This would take the issue off the table.  If you add up all the religious minorities in the UK they make up the majority and this would unite them against him, not a good political outcome.
    Or could it be that if the European Court strikes down the right to exercise religion as a natural right, he proposes to correct the statute in the UK, a sort of political win win situation, reassuring people of all beliefs and none that whatever their belief he will support their right to express it.
     Or could we be sympathetic of the poor QC that he is forced to defend a stupid law and, well, he just has to keep ploughing on, after all its a job. After all, there is no discrimination, he could always get a job somewhere else.

  • Parasum

    Why does that matter ? What matters more: a piece of metal, or, the attitude that wearing it ought to reflect ? 

    To put it another way around – if people are Christians, why is wearing a cross or crucifix so hugely important ? “Sorry, but you can’t wear that bit of metal [for reasons A, B, C]” does not mean “Sorry, but you are forbidden to have the faith that is important to you as the motive for your work as a nurse.” Why is it not possible to put wearing the cross aside when required for good reasons to do so, while keeping the Christian motives ? 

    This whole fuss denies the symbolism of the Cross – and that is sad. It’s like making the sacrament of unity a reason for disunity, or making war to promote the Peace of Christ. What is that leads human beings to make a huge commotion about visible symbols, while losing sight of what they symbolise ?

  • Parasum

    Sometimes rights collide. 

    “[T]he right to freedom of thought,conscience and religion…and freedom…in public…to manifest his religion…in teaching, practice, worship and observance” is not absolute – in a multi-cultural society, there are manifestations of religion that the adherents of a religion may not be able to engage in. This is what happens at times with proposed Orange Order marches; they are not always allowed to occur.

    If everyone with a religion could do exactly and all as they wanted, that would lead to chaos. People can’t always have what they want, even if they are Christians of some kind. They can’t ignore the claims of others, such as their employers or patients or clients or customers or colleagues. Christians have rights and liberties in society – but so do others. 

  • Parasum

    How has he done any of that ?

  • Parasum

    “I always thought that religion was something one did in private and in a church, cathedral or abbey. It appears that religion is something you now need to confront others with, bash them over the head with a bible, koran or whatever and make devil signs against non compliance.I have been subject to this – obviously on the receiving end of religious froth and bubble.”

    ## I can’t speak for “religion”, which is an abstraction. But as for Christianity: it is both individual, and corporate; and because it’s corporate, it’s public and so, it has a visible expression. It is not meant to be hidden or kept to oneself, but to be shared. It has always been something Christians are meant to share. Sounds to me as though you may be taking the English discomfort about talking about “religion” for a feature of Christianity itself. It may be a feature of some kinds of Anglican Christianity; but it’s not a feature of Christianity as a whole. 

    The individual is not meant to parade his or her Christianity, as though  he or she expected brownie-points or some other kind of credit for “being religious” – Christian faith is not meant to be used as a form of spiritual egotism or self-assertion. But none of that is the same as sharing with others a very good and vital thing  that we have received ourselves. “It’s not about us” – it’s all about Christ. If the claims Christians make for Him are true, nothing else is even remotely as important. But if they are true, they are supremely worth standing up for – atheists are not afraid to stand up and be counted; what possible reason can there be for Christians not to be even more committed to what we believe ? 

  • la catholic state

    I have anecdotal evidence from the internet.  But why don’t you investigate the phenomenon yourself….or are you afraid of what you might discover?!

    Secularism comes after wealth brought about by Christianity. And comes before the decline of society. 

  • la catholic state

    Well I have met one.  You could have knocked me down with a feather when a lapsed Catholic told me they welcomed Islamisation…it was change and evolution they said.

    Then I came to the internet and discovered the amazingly common phenomenon of pro-Islam atheists.

  • la catholic state

    Actions speak louder than words….and we are not all fools.

  • la catholic state

    If it’s only a piece of metal then why the big fuss over it?!  Why not just allow this piece of metal.  It’s not harming anyone is it?!

    No….we all know it signifies something vastly greater than a piece of metal.  Satan especially knows this.  That’s why this ‘piece of metal’ is so dangerous in the minds of some and must be suppressed.

  • Acleron

    Many anecdotes != Eveidence.

    I suspect you don’t actually visit atheist sites to study them, Your lack of knowledge about atheists is an indicator.

    But in general, you make the claims, you supply the evidence.

  • Acleron

    Amazingly common? This caps your laughable claim that all homosexuals are paedophiles. Complete nonsense of course.

  • la catholic state

    So Sikhs can wear bracelets as long as they are pushed up their arms….but Christians can’t wear Crucifixes that are around their necks.  Oh please!!

  • JabbaPapa

    The violent oppression is often imposed by religious majorities.

    ooh yes, such religious majorities as the Chinese and North Korean Governments, Stalin’s bullies, the Nazi death squads, and the Khmer Rouge.

  • JabbaPapa

    For a considerable  amount of the time that christianity was around, the majority of society was oppressed and downtrodden.

    Carry on believing that Soviet Propaganda, Komrad !!!

  • JabbaPapa

    This is self-evidently untrue.

  • JabbaPapa

    I suppose that’s why the NHS reportedly rejected this lady’s suggestion that she do just that with her cross, and keep it underneath her clothing when necessary.

  • JabbaPapa

    What wound ?

    You did not ask “Would you like a bunch of fake spaghetti in the shape of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be applied to an open wound in your body ?

    Would you ?

    No, you’re just expecting people to express the completely imaginary “bigotry” that you expect to find in them, in your irrational a priori manner.

  • JabbaPapa


  • JabbaPapa

    Your religious symbols have no meaning for me, but wear them as much as you like.