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Two conflicting meanings of religious freedom & liberty

Part 1: 2012-JAN: 4 examples of the conflicts
between freedom of religious belief, and the
freedom to implement this in the workplace.


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Four examples of the difference in meanings of "religious freedom" and the resultant conflicts:

Four religious freedom cases involving British Christians were among those decided by the European Court of Human Rights in Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom on 2012-JAN-15. 1 Each involves a conflict between a person's religious belief and the freedom to act on those beliefs in the workplace, particularly if the actions might negatively involve other people.

A brief outline of the four cases follows:

The first two cases involved the original meaing of "religious freedom:" the freedom of religious expression. One plaintiff won; the other lost:

  • An airline check-in clerk was told to stop wearing a crucifix because the employer was banning all visible religious symbols. She was fired, but the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR) upheld her case, because the employer was interfering with her freedom of religious expression. Principle: Individual's religious freedom of expression was found to trump the less important employer's desire to present a secular image to customers.

  • A nurse was told to stop wearing a cross because it was unhygenic, and presented a safety risk. She was transferred to a desk job and eventually fired. The ECHR rejected her case. Principle: Safety trumps religious freedom of expression.

The second two cases involved the new meaning of "religious freedom:" the freedom of religious persons to discriminate against and denegrate others -- lesbians, gays and bisexuals in these cases:

  • A registrar of marriages and civil unions refused on religious grounds to to conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples applying for civil partnerships. The ECHR also rejected her case. Principle: The right of the public to not be discriminated against trumps the religious freedom and desire to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

  • A marriage therapist refused to counsel gay couples because of the counselor's religious beliefs against lesbians, gays and bisexuals. The ECHR also rejected his case. Principle: As in the previous case, the right of the public to not be discriminated against trumps the religious freedom and desire to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The four plaintiffs are to be commended for tenatiously fighting for their rights through employment tribunals, employment appeal tribunals, appeal courts, all the way to the ECHR. Without their tenacity some very important principles would not have been established as binding for all member countries of the European Union. It is very likely that these four rulings will have extensive influence in other countries beyond the Union.

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Details of the cases

All four plaintiffs claimed that the actions of their employers violated Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protected their "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and "prohibited religious discrimination." 2

Two of the cases involved the wearing of religious jewelry: one won and the other lost.

  • During 2006, A British Airways employee, Nadia Eweida, now 60, was check-in clerk for the airline at Heathrow Airport in London. She is a Pentecostal Christian of Egyptian descent. She wore a crucifix at a time when British Airways banned their employees from wearing visible religious symbols. She was sent home during 2006-NOV and did not return to work until 2007-FEB. She sued her employer for damages and lost wages, Eweida lost her case at an employment tribunal and later at the Employment Appeal Tribunal. She also failed at the Court of Appeal, but later appealed to the ECHR where she won. The court treated her case as a freedom of religious speech/expression matter. They ruled that the company policy "amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion." When informed of the decision, she jumped for joy and said "Thank you Jesus. ... It’s a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith." British Prime Minister David Cameron issued a tweet saying that he was "... delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld." 3

  • Shirly Chaplin, 57, was also prohibited by her employer from wearing a necklace with a chain. She was a nurse at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital. She had worn her confirmation crucifix on a small chain for the previous 3 decades. The hospital claimed that the cross was unhygenic. They also believed that a patient might grab it and injure the nurse. She offered to have a quick-release magnetic clasp installed to prevent herself from being injured, but this was refused by the hospital. She was transferred to a desk assignment and eventually fired. She lost her case before an Employment Appeal Tribunal in 2010. She pursued the case to the ECHR in 2012. She said:

    "It was a case of my job or my faith - and I chose my faith."

    She took early retirement in 2012. The ECHR ruled that the hospital's rule was reasonable in order to protect the health and safety of nurses and patients.

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The other two cases involved individuals refusing to provide services because of their religious beliefs towards lesbians, gays and bisexuals. Their employers considered such services should be provided for persons of all sexual orientation without discrimination and that the employees had been hired for that purpose. Both lost their cases before the ECHR.

  • Lillan Ladele was a local registrar in Islington, North London. In the basis of her conservative Christian faith, she refused to conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples applying for civil partnerships. For a while, she was able to informally arrange to swap duties with other officers who were happy to officiate at same-sex ceremonies. However, the Islington Borough Council changed the registrar's working rules to a system that did not offer her the flexibility to trade clients among other staff. Eventually, she was fired, even though no couple had been denied services from Ladele's office. She claimed that she had been shunned and accused of being homophobic.

    An employment tribunal ruled in her favor, but the case was appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal who reversed the ruling. The Court of Appeal upheld the Appeal Tribunal ruling. She took her case to the ECHR and lost.
    She said that British Christians would be "devastated" by the court's ruling.

  • Gary McFarlane was a marriage counsellor who was hired by a national charity Relate Avon to offer sex therapy to couples. He originally agreed to counsel both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, but later refused to offer therapy to same-sex couples because of his religious faith. 4 He felt that such therapy would promote homosexuality. He was fired in 2008. He lost his case during an internal appeal, and an employment tribunal. He lost again at the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and had his case rejected twice by the Court of Appeal. At that time he said:

    "There should be allowances taken into account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles."

After his case was rejected by the ECHR, he said that the court's ruling in his case was "a regrettable judgment" for persons of all faiths, not just Christians.

The court ruled that employers can develop reasonable policies and require their staff to comply with the policies. The right of members of the public to be treated without discrimination when they are clients of a government office or private charitable organization is more important that the freedom of employees to actively discriminate against the clients based on the latter's sexual orientation, and the former's personal religious beliefs.

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This topic continues in the next essay

References used:

  1. "Freedom of religion: Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom (nos. 48420/10 59842/10, 51671/10 et 36516/10)," Press Unit, European Court of Human Rights, 2013-JAN, at: http://www.echr.coe.int This is a PDF file.
  2. "Christian discrimination claims heard by Europe court ," BBC News, 2013-JAN-15, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/
  3. Jill Lawless, "Christian employee discriminated against for wearing crucifix, court rules," Associated Press, 2013-JAN-16, at: http://www.thestar.com/
  4. Emily Alpert, "British Christian wins bias claim, three others lose," Los Angeles Times, 2013-JAN-15, at: http://www.latimes.com/

Site navigation:

Home > Religious Freedom > here

or Home > Important essays > Religious Freedom > here

or Home > Religious information > Religious Freedom > here

or Home > Human rights > Religious Freedom >here

Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2013-JAN-16
Latest update: 2013-JAN-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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