Today, the Fourth Section of the European Court of Human Rights has issued an important ruling on freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. While it contains some positive language regarding the wearing of religious symbols, the ruling is deeply worrisome with regards to the freedom to act according to one's individual conscience.
Four cases were decided today at the ECHR. All four applicants were Christians, all from the UK, all suffered severe sanctions or even dismissal from their jobs because of their Christian faith and conscience. The Court joined the four cases into one single judgment.
The cases of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin vs. United Kingdom concern religious freedom and the wearing of religious symbols at the workplace. Shirley Chaplin worked as a nurse in a government-run hospital and had worn a small cross on a necklace without incident for more than 30 years. She was asked to take off her cross, which she refused. Her request to be allowed to continue to wear it was refused on the ground that it could cause injury if a patient pulled on it. She was removed from her position and eventually lost her employment. Nadia Eweida worked at a check-in counter of British Airways and wore equally a small cross on a chain around her neck. She was dismissed from her job, given the reason of BA’s uniform code, which permits the wearing of a Sikh turban or a Muslim headscarf, but not a Christian cross.
The other two cases...
...affected by today’s ruling involved two Christians, Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane who were each fired for refusing to act against their conscience. Lillian Ladele worked as a marriage registrar at the London Borough of Islington for 16 years with an exemplary employment record. When the Civil Partnership Act came into force in the UK, she asked not to be scheduled to register same-sex partnerships – a service that had never been part of her original job description. She was informed that her contract would be terminated if she refused to sign the amended work contract, including the requirement to register same-sex partnerships. Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor expressed to his superiors his concern over a conflict between his conscience and Christian faith and the – hypothetical – request to provide same-sex couples with psycho-sexual therapy. He was dismissed for gross misconduct.
The Court ruled in three out of the four cases that the severe sanctions and dismissal from employment did not constitute a violation of Article 9 (freedom of religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Only in the Eweida case, the UK has been found guilty of a violation of her religious freedom, given that members of other religions were accommodated by British Airways with their wishes to wear religious items.
The Court found that it was not disproportionate to dismiss the three other employees, and that these drastic sanctions were proportionate to the enforcement of the employer’s “equality and diversity policies”. While these diversity policies aim at fighting religious discrimination, the fact that they are creating new discrimination against Christians is becoming an obvious paradox.
It is particularly worrisome that the dismissal one of the applicants, Mr. McFarlane, has been found proportionate despite the fact that he never actually refused the counselling of a same-sex couple. The “gross misconduct” that was the reason for his dismissal was his expression of professional and conscientious “doubts” to his superiors.
While European Dignity Watch applauds the finding of a violation of Article 9 in the Eweida case, the reasoning of the majority of the judges in the three other cases has marked a new step in the discrimination against Christians who act according to their consciences or wear a non-controversial sign of their faith.
“We see an erosion of the respect for individual conscience, especially where Christians are concerned”, says Sophia Kuby, Executive Director of EDW. “Where is the respect for the belief and conscience of capable, faultless and hard-working employees?”, she asks.
The excellent dissenting opinion of the two ECHR judges Vucinic and De Gaetano stresses that “the State is obliged to respect the individual’s freedom of conscience.” The two judges continue to say: “Instead of practising the tolerance of the ‘dignity for all’ it preached, the Borough of Islington (the employer of Mrs. Ladele) pursued the doctrinaire line, the road of obsessive political correctness. It effectively sought to force the applicant to act against her conscience of face the extreme penalty of dismissal – something which (…) cannot be deemed necessary in a democratic society.”
The judgment is a preliminary one and can be appealed before the Grand Chamber.