(CNSNews.com) – Britain’s Conservative-led government plans to argue in a European Court of Human Rights case that employers are entitled to ban the visible wearing of crosses at work because displaying the symbol is not a recognized “requirement” of the Christian faith.
A document leaked to Britain’s Sunday Telegraph outlines the argument the government plans to present at the tribunal in Strasbourg, France, where two Christian women will claim that their rights were violated when employers barred them from wearing crosses at work.
At the center of the applicants’ case is Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
But the government will argue that “the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not a manifestation of their religion or belief within the meaning of Article 9.”
Furthermore, it will say that “the restriction on the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not an ‘interference’ with their rights protected by Article 9.”
“In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognized form of practicing the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith,” says the document, which the Telegraph says was prepared by the Foreign Office.
The second most-senior figure in the Anglican Church, Archbishop of York John Sentamu, told the BBC Sunday that the government was “beginning to meddle in areas that they ought not to. I think they should leave that to the courts to make a judgment.”
Earlier another Anglican bishop challenged the argument about displaying a cross not being a requirement of Christianity.
“OK, if you say wearing a cross isn’t a compulsory part of Christianity, we agree,” Bishop of Peterborough Donald Allister told the Telegraph last month. “But it is a duty of a Christian to be public about their faith as well as private, and that is clear New Testament teaching.”
News of the government’s intervention in the case comes amid a raging dispute between the government and church leaders over Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to legalize same-sex marriage by 2015.
Hijabs, turbans allowed
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is the final destination of two drawn-out legal battles, brought by Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, two women who fell foul of their employers for wearing crosses at work.
Eweida, a Coptic Christian and British Airways staffer at Heathrow Airport, was told in 2006 to remove or cover up a small cross she wears around her neck. She refused and was sent home on unpaid leave. Eweida noted that colleagues of other religions, including Muslims and Sikhs, were allowed to wear religious items such as hijabs, turbans and religious bracelets.
The airline policy won the backing of the National Secular Society, which complained that activists were “determined to push religion to the front line of British life” and accused Eweida of clearly being “motivated by a wish to evangelize at work.”
The following year British Airways changed its uniform policy and allowed Eweida to return to work, but refused to pay her for the period she was suspended. Claiming religious discrimination, she took the case to an employment tribunal, but lost.
After the Supreme Court declined to consider her case, she decided to take the matter to the ECHR.
Chaplin, a nurse in her 50s, was prohibited from working at a hospital after refusing to cover up a cross she said she had worn at work throughout a 30-year nursing career. An employment tribunal in 2010 ruled in favor of the employer, a government National Health Service (NHS) trust, saying its policy was based on health and safety grounds, not religion, and adding that wearing a cross was not a requirement for Christians.
Six senior Anglican bishops, including former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, backed Chaplin, saying in a March 2010 letter that that nurse “has worn the cross every day since her confirmation [40 years earlier] as a sign of her Christian faith, a faith which led to her vocation in nursing, and which has sustained her in that vital work ever since.”
“The uniform policy of the NHS trust permits exemptions for religious clothing,” they wrote. “This has been exercised with regard to other faiths, but not with regard to the wearing of a cross around the neck.”
The ECHR has also been asked to consider two other cases brought by British Christians claiming religious discrimination – a woman who lost her job with a London council in 2007 after she refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples; and a relationship counselor who was fired by a large national charity after refusing to provide sex therapy to same-sex couples.
Britain has given same-sex couples similar legal rights to married couples under civil partnership provisions introduced in 2005.
Now Cameron’s government is proposing to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales, launching a public consultation exercise on the matter.
Although churches will not be forced to perform “weddings” for homosexual and lesbian couples, the proposals have ignited a storm of protest.
A letter by senior Roman Catholic archbishops, read at thousands of churches across England and Wales on Sunday, warned that that changing the legal definition of marriage would be a “profoundly radical step” that would “gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage.”