Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark has said the British courts are wrongfully penalising Christians through an “incorrect interpretation” of human rights laws.
The archbishop said judges were guilty of “woolly thinking” and a bias against Christians who either wore religious jewellery or who had taken a moral stand against acts they held in conscience to be sinful.
He said certain court decisions had not upheld Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Britain’s Human Rights Act of 1998 is based on that convention.
His comments were directed primarily at courts which, he explained, wrongly upheld the legitimacy of disciplinary measures taken against four Christians who have since decided to challenge the workings of the law at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on the grounds that British judges were failing to protect their rights.
“The courts are misinterpreting the law,” said Archbishop Smith, vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the chairman of the bishops’ Department for Citizenship and Christian Responsibility.
His remarks came a day after the department responded to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a government-funded body that had sought the bishops’ views on the four cases.
The request followed permission by the European court for the commission to intervene in the cases of Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane in an attempt to clarify how the law ought to have been applied.
Mrs Eweida, a check-in clerk for British Airways, was suspended after refusing to remove a small crucifix over her uniform. Mrs Chaplin, a nurse, was stopped from working on hospital wards and given a desk job after she refused to hide her cross.
Miss Ladele lost her job as a registrar in London after she refused to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples. Mr McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, was sacked when he refused to give sexual therapy counselling to gay couples.
The commission wants to convince the European court that the law was wrongly applied in the cases of Mrs Eweida and Mrs Chaplin but correctly applied in the cases of Miss Ladele and Mr McFarlane.
Archbishop Smith said that although Sikhs and Muslims had successfully used the law to uphold a right to manifest their beliefs in such areas as religious attire and jewelry, Christians were denied the same right because the courts had decided that it was not essential to the practice of their faith.
“Why can’t Christians wear the symbol of the cross?” he asked in an interview with the American Catholic News Service.
“It is absolutely part of the Gospel,” he said. “Without the cross there is no salvation. It is at the heart of our faith because it is the symbol and sign of God’s unconditional love.”
Archbishop Smith also insisted that Christians must be allowed “by any reckoning” to act according to their consciences and “not be obliged to do something they know or believe in their consciences to be wrong”.
The archbishop and his department argue that the law was wrongly applied in every case.
The absolute rights of the four to manifest their religious beliefs, the archbishop said, were protected by the European human rights convention.
Article 9 says people have the right “either alone or in community with others and in public or private to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. It says such rights may be limited when necessary for the normal functioning of a democratic society.
Article 14 says that all citizens must enjoy the right of freedom of religion.
Archbishop Smith said that the way the articles had been interpreted by the courts revealed a fundamental lack of balance.
“There seems to be a prejudice against Christians or against the manifestation of the Christian faith which totally puzzles me,” he added. “I think it is woolly thinking, to be honest.”
He said that whenever there was a conflict of rights between Christians and homosexuals, for instance, the courts were consistently “coming down heavily on one side and totally ignoring the other”.
“The law properly applied wouldn’t disadvantage anybody but would ensure that we all could exercise our rights fairly,” Archbishop Smith said.