Two British women who were punished for wearing crosses at work are taking their cases to Strasbourg, France, and the hallowed halls of the European Court of Human Rights. By international treaty, Europeans have the right "to manifest [their] religion or belief." The British Government will argue, however, that wearing a cross isn't protected because it isn't required to be a good Christian.
British Airways suspended one of the women, check-in workers Nadia Eweida, back in 2006 after she refused to conceal her cross necklace as the uniform code required. Eweida lost her religious discrimination case. Four years later the other plaintiff, Shirley Chaplain, who had been a nurse for three decades, was banned from hospital wards when she refused to remove her cross necklace. Her lawsuit failed too.
Christians In Conflict
The landmark case will test the reach of the European Convention on Human Rights, at a time when more Christians in the U.K. are alleging religious discrimination, and some fear that Christians are becoming marginalized in an increasingly secular society.
A report published last month by Christians in Parliament, a group of eight U.K. parliamentary members, argues that Christians have been increasingly discriminated against as British society has secularized over the past 100 years. Based on testimony from dozens of Christian groups, the report finds that in the U.K. there is a "deep and widespread level of religious illiteracy in public life" that has led to "a narrowing of the space for the articulation, expression and demonstration of Christian belief."
Most of the cases involve a conflict between an employee's Christian beliefs and the rights of gays and lesbians.
• A Christian couple who run a bed-and-breakfast had a policy that only married couples could take double rooms. Same-sex marriage isn't legal in the U.K, and when a gay couple was denied a room, the couple was forced to pay thousands of pounds in damages.
• A Christian registrar was disciplined for refusing to conduct civil partnerships, and lost her appeal.
• A Christian relationship counselor was fired for refusing to work with gay couples, and lost his appeal too.
• A man had his salary slashed by the equivalent of over $22,000 by his employer of 17 years, after posting his opposition to same-sex marriage on Facebook.
While religious discrimination is illegal in the U.K., it generally isn't protected if it infringes upon someone else's rights. (There are some exceptions, however, like religious institutions, who only appoint male ministers.)
Other cases involve the display of religious symbols, like the electrician who lost his job after refusing to remove a cross from the dashboard of his work van.
These are more complicated.
Crosses And Christian Requirements
Muslim headscarves and Sikh turbans are largely accommodated in the U.K., because they're considered requirements of their respective religions. But courts have found that wearing a cross isn't protected, because it's simply "motivated or inspired" by religion, and not a "manifestation" of it. As The Guardian points out, this puts the government in the curious position of asking theological questions -- like whether a certain behavior is mandated by doctrine -- in the name of secularism.
The U.S., in contrast, requires all employers to accommodate the religious practices of all their employees, unless it results in "undue hardship." America leans far more heavily in the direction of religious liberty, even though church and state in the U.K. aren't constitutionally separate. The Church of England is the official religion, and the queen is its "Supreme Governor." The legal offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were only abolished in 2008.
A Marginalized Minority?
At the same time, the U.K. is one of the most secular countries in the world. Eleven percent of the population was a member of a church in 2010, according to "UK Church Statistics, 2005-2015." In the British Social Attitudes 2010 survey, 44 percent of respondents said they affiliated themselves with Christianity, compared to half of respondents, and almost two thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds, who said they belonged to no religion at all.
In contrast, 78 percent of Americans self-affiliate with Christianity, and just 16 percent say they don't affiliate with any faith, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
"We do have an established church, but for much of political discourse, religion is not only absent; it's actively shunned," explains Daniel Webster, the parliamentary officer for the Evangelical Alliance, the largest evangelical organization in the U.K. "It's one of the greatest ironies."
The National Secular Society has a different view. It said in a statement that the cases mentioned in the report were all attempts by Christians to "have special rights in the workplace and in society at large," which "courts repeatedly kicked out," because they're "foolish."
While the current debate around religion in the U.S. includes accusations of "religious persecution," "a war on religion," and even the suggestion that President's Obama's stance on access to birth control compares to the strategy of the Nazis), the report emphasizes that the U.K. is a profoundly tolerant place. "Christians in the UK are not persecuted," it states in its executive summary. "To suggest that they are is to minimize the suffering of Christians in many parts of the world who face repression, imprisonment and death...."
Churches and Christian groups are also guilty, the report charges, of making the situation worse for themselves by hyping the problems they face. "Our message to the church is: Don't exaggerate, don't cry wolf. Let's not look for fights," Gary Streeter, a representative in the House of Commons and the chair of Christians in Parliament, told AOL Jobs.
He fears that many of the incidents that Christians bring to the attention of the public and the courts make them look backward and bigoted.
"Too often the Church is defined by what it opposes rather than what it stands for," Streeter said. He prefers that Christians be known for their good work, and Christianity for its long and storied influence on the culture and values of his country.
"Some say the church has turned more people away from God than any other organization on the planet," he added. "And, sadly, I think that's true."
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