When the Church of England’s General Synod vote on permitting female clergy to become bishops fell short of the necessary majority (as discussed ad nauseam in previous posts), a number of people asked why an apparently sexist and discriminatory organisation should hold a privileged place at the heart of our society, even being granted a substantial presence in the House of Lords.
That’s a fair question, and a useful way of highlighting the constitutional peculiarities of having an established church, but it would be very easy to take that line of argument too far. There is a campaign at the moment to drum up further support for a petition calling for the removal of the CofE’s presence in the Lords on the basis of the church’s (current) position, in a push towards 100,000 signatures, but I think this is a mistake.
Naturally, it’s reasonable to expect that places in the upper house won’t be handed to members of a body which defies society’s basic principles of equality. At the very least, we should question a system where discrimination on the grounds of sex is prohibited, yet certain groups can not only freely discriminate but even have an unelected presence in the parliament that passed the prohibition. But raising the objection in this way is a risky move.
The phrasing of the petition implies that the Lords Spiritual are a problem solely because the CofE has a rather relaxed attitude to sexual equality, and that their position would otherwise be fine. So when the church finally gets around to permitting women to be promoted, as it surely will eventually, this will amount to an implicit endorsement of the establishment of the church and its right to speak and vote on legislation.
If the cause of secularism is to be advanced, it’s important to ensure that the arguments against sectarian privilege in parliament are made on the broad principles, rather than the detail of specific positions. Otherwise, the argument for secularism runs the risk of being perceived as a moan about a particular policy, or even opportunistic exploitation of a group’s unpopularity. Above all, the case for a secular society would become dependent on the current views of certain groups.
Parliament is full of people with different views, including many who hold opinions at least as discriminatory as the church, but I don’t believe that should be sufficient to expel anyone from parliament. Of course, there are clear reasons why the Lords Spiritual are different, but they need to be stated. And those reasons are the important, enduring secular arguments, so why not start with them in the first place?
In attempting to point out (and possibly exploit) this bizarre situation, the petition inadvertently shores up the church’s claim to places in the Lords as long as they clean up their act. Using such an unpopular position in this way may be a clever short-term tactic, but it’s a poor long-term strategy.
The long-awaited ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on four cases brought under articles 9 (freedom of religion) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights has finally been delivered. Bafflingly, although the court rejected the appeals from three of the four applicants, much of the coverage has concentrated on the one they upheld, from Nadia Eweida. The BBC’s headline “BA discriminated against Christian” is a typical example.
However, while the single overturned judgment may be the most interesting story, the details are a lot more complicated than you might expect from the headlines, and parts of the ruling seem positively perverse.
As I argued last year, the precise balance between religious ornamentation and dress codes is a tricky one to strike, and the balance could reasonably be set in various different places by people acting in good faith. I don’t think I can add much to my previous views, so I’ll concentrate on the peculiarities of the ruling.
Interestingly, there were two dissenting opinions in this case, which closely match my own. The dissenting judges note that Ms Eweida was content to comply with the dress code for two years prior to her complaint, and originally accepted a requirement to conceal her cross pending resolution of the internal grievance process, before turning up for work in open breach of that agreement.
They also note that BA made every effort to find a compromise, not only offering an alternative position to allow Ms Eweida to wear her cross openly, but reviewing their policy and eventually amending their dress code to permit her to wear her cross. Bizarrely, the majority opinion took this change as evidence that BA were in the wrong because their previous restrictions clearly weren’t necessary.
As the dissenting judges say, people can reasonably and legitimately disagree on the balance to be struck, but BA’s actions were anything but stubborn and rigid, with the company bending over backwards to accommodate Ms Eweida’s wishes. And they argue with some force that a restriction can be strictly unnecessary, while still being important enough to keep in place until it could be fully reviewed.
Despite finding in Ms Eweida’s favour, it’s also noteworthy that the court rejected her claim for loss of earnings, as she repeatedly rejected generous alternative arrangements while her complaint was being dealt with. Although she was found to have suffered discrimination, any financial hardship was entirely her fault. Her behaviour in this respect was clearly regarded as unreasonable.
I find it bizarre that Ms Eweida can claim this as a great victory when the court has clearly concluded that her behaviour throughout was irrational and unhelpful, but it seems totally perverse that the court appears to have decided that BA were guilty of discrimination because they amended their policy following a review. The moral for any company in a similar position in future appears to be not to give an inch.
Most importantly, though, the court’s rejection of Shirley Chaplin’s similar case against Royal Devon and Exeter Hospitals NHS Trust and the appeals of Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane over being expected to perform their jobs for both straight and gay couples make it clear that you can’t expect your workplace to be organised in line with your beliefs. In that light, Ms Eweida’s victory is a hollow one, more on a technicality than the legal principles.
Despite the tone of some of the reporting, I think today’s ruling is actually a strong statement that people with religious beliefs have to fit in with the expectations of their workplace just like everyone else.
Ever get the feeling you can’t win?
In the latest episode in the long-running saga of same-sex marriage, the government have published their proposed legislation, and a particular section has attracted a huge amount of attention. Religious bodies will be permitted to act as they wish, with two exceptions: the Church of England (CofE) and the Church in Wales (CinW) will be specifically banned from conducting same-sex marriages.
The immediate reaction to this peculiar clause has been interesting. Some have called it ridiculous, some have complained that it restricts religious freedoms, and some have even seen it as revenge for the CofE’s rejection of female bishops a few weeks ago. No conspiracy has been left unvoiced, but the reality is a little more complicated than it appears.
The position of the CofE as the established church (and to a large extent the CinW as a historic offshoot of the CofE) is constitutionally quite complicated. The state and the church are intertwined, and that throws up some oddities, the most important being that their clergy are entitled to register marriages on their own, while other religions and denominations perform services under licence. That may appear to be an administrative detail, but it has significant consequences.
In most cases, a minister of religion could refuse to marry a couple on grounds of conscience without a fuss. They could still be married by the state, and all this would have no more practical impact on the couple than if they were denied communion. But the CofE and CinW act as agents of the state in performing both religious and civil functions. If they were to say no to a couple, the freedom of religion would be tangled up with the civil function, and that’s where the problems come in.
One of the fears that was raised in the consultation process was that once same-sex marriage was legal, it would be possible to take legal action against the church if they refused to marry a couple, especially if they would have gone ahead had the couple been a man and a woman. That wouldn’t stand a chance in most cases, as religious freedom would win out, but where the claimed discrimination was on behalf of the state, it’s conceivable that the courts would have upheld the case. Explicitly banning the church from carrying out such an act protects them from that risk.
Nor is the ban likely to be permanent. In the event that the churches decide that they wish to permit same-sex marriage, it would be as simple as striking out a clause in the legislation in recognition of the decision taken by General Synod. And given the church’s recent behaviour, that could easily be arranged by the time they catch up in a couple of centuries.
This proposal ensures that in line with the wishes of the CofE and CinW, they can’t be forced to conduct marriages against their will, so you’d think that everyone would be happy. But you’d be wrong. Some supporters of same-sex marriage are unhappy that too much ground is being conceded, even though the CofE and CinW have no intention of marrying same-sex couples anyway, and forcing them to do so would enter very dangerous territory. And opponents are unhappy because… actually, I’m not sure why.
As far as I can see, all the genuine fears and concerns that were raised by religious groups have been addressed, religious freedoms have been protected, and anyone opposing same-sex marriage shouldn’t be bothered at being told not to do something they didn’t want to do anyway.
I suppose you just can’t please some people.
It’s been a week since the Church of England voted on the draft legislation which would have created female bishops, and in that time, two dominant narratives have emerged. On the one hand, the church (or at least those who voted against the measure) stand accused of backwardness and sexism. On the other, the claim is that this wasn’t a vote against women being bishops so much as a vote against the details of how it was being implemented.
Having written about it at length, I’d intended to leave this subject well alone, at least for now. But then the details of how people voted were published, and I just had to write a bit more, because the picture painted is a long way from the way it’s being presented by the two sides of the argument.
My first thought was to examine the voting among the laity, and to see where the vote was lost. I was curious to see what the balance of the sexes was, and whether a differently-balanced House of Laity might have swung the vote. The first interesting discovery was that there’s little difference in the number of men and women. Of the 206 who voted, 91 were female.
Even more interesting than that, though, was the voting patterns between the sexes. Both men and women had a majority for the measure, but neither with the necessary two-thirds for the motion to be carried. Both groups were 64% in favour, the men splitting 74-41 and the women 58-33. It may well be that those women have bought into a sexist worldview, but it’s not quite as straightforward as blatant oppression by nasty men.
So maybe the vote against really was a sober rejection of the practicalities, rather than the principle. But is there some way of testing that hypothesis?
Yes, there is – examining the voting patterns among the clergy. If the vote was lost because it wasn’t practical, or didn’t make enough allowances for people with different ideas, you’d expect to see a similar pattern across all houses and sexes. In the House of Clergy, though, while the men only narrowly passed the motion 96-44, women overwhelming supported it, with just one vote against (Rebecca Swyer, from the notoriously male-dominated Chichester Diocese) and 52 for.
The people for whom this vote really mattered – people who actually face the reality of the Stained-Glass Ceiling – had no doubts. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but it shows up something interesting. Contrary to initial appearances, the outliers weren’t the laity – they were the female clergy. In fact, there’s no statistically significant difference between the laity, who just missed the required majority, and the male clergy, who narrowly achieved it.
What does all this mean? It very strongly suggests that some members of General Synod aren’t exactly loving others as themselves. That may be those who can safely deny women promotion in the church because it’s an issue that doesn’t affect them directly (lay women as well as the men), or it could be that female clergy are putting their own career prospects ahead of practical considerations that concern others. Your prior views will determine your response, but the distinction is striking.
Above all, the breakdown of the laity suggests that the apparent naked sexism of the “no” vote is a bit more complicated than that. It may be more of a generalised and ingrained conservatism, or it may be an objective assessment of flawed proposals, which only looks out of place thanks to the voting of female clergy.
I have my ideas, and you will undoubtedly have yours. I doubt this analysis will change anyone’s mind about the right course of action, but hopefully it will make the arguments a little more informed.
NB: I have done my best to analyse the voting statistics as they have come to me. I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes, but if you notice any, please let me know and I’ll be happy to correct them.
This is the last I’m going to write about female bishops for a while, I promise.
I would have thought that the laity in the Church of England would be more liberal and progressive than the clergy and bishops, and I’ve previously posted about how it’s the church hierarchy that perpetuates the same old beliefs, but from Tuesday’s vote on consecrating women as bishops, the opposite seems to be the case. The further up the hierarchy of the church you go, the stronger the support for the draft legislation. That seems totally counterintuitive to me, but it seems the same thing happened over the ordination of women, so what’s going on?
The first and most obvious point to make is that this vote wasn’t on the principle of women being consecrated as bishops, which has already been approved, but the practical arrangements for that change. That’s a subtle distinction, and one which is the result of the CofE’s peculiar constitution, but it may be at least part of the key to explaining what happened.
The bishops, who were the most enthusiastic supporters of the legislation, mostly had a considerable amount of investment in its success. They may have been involved in drafting it, or could have discussed it at sufficient length with colleagues to feel closely connected with the measure, and felt that it more or less reflected their own views. They may also have attempted to reflect their clergy’s views, but will probably not have spoken to a huge cross-section of their congregants.
So that partly explains it. It may also be that as this measure was about how to admit women to the episcopate, rather than whether to do so, the clergy were more likely to focus on the practicalities of that, rather than viewing it as a continuation of a battle that has already been won. Conversely, experience of applying their faith in complex situations may make them more likely than a lay person to accept a messy compromise rather than holding out for an unachievable perfection.
To be honest, though, I think the most important factor is in the process of election for General Synod. Bishops and clergy on Synod can be expected to be more or less representative of the groups they represent, but I’m not so sure about the laity.
Lay members of General Synod are elected by Deanery Synods, which in turn are made up of representatives of Parochial Church Councils (PCCs). PCCs are generally made up of anyone keen enough to volunteer, or more commonly, anyone who doesn’t look the other way quickly enough when there’s a vacancy. Those who end up on Deanery Synod are invariably the keen ones, and they select members of General Synod.
So General Synod is heavily weighted in favour of those who are keen, which is usually because they have a particular agenda. That’s bad enough, as it’s likely to disproportionately favour extremists, but when membership involves several layers of unrewarded representation, each more demanding than the last, those who can make the necessary commitment are most likely to be wealthy and/or retired – again, almost certainly more conservative than the average pew-filler.
If my theory’s right, I’d expect to see the balance of General Synod change in response to this result, as more progressive people are motivated to ask who represents them and what they stand for, and to put themselves forward as a rival candidate if necessary. Time will tell.
Photo by flyheatherfly, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0
One of the peculiar aspects of the opposition within the Church of England (CofE) to women becoming bishops is that it comes from two distinct groups with almost nothing in common. In the red corner, there are the conservative evangelicals. They believe (more or less) that the Bible says women shouldn’t have authority over men. In the blue corner, there are the anglo-catholics. Their objection, by contrast, is that women can’t perform the functions of a bishop.
In terms of winning them over and ensuring that these groups won’t scupper any legislation making women bishops, the evangelicals are mostly quite easy to deal with. Give them some sort of alternative line of command that doesn’t include any women, and they’ll be pretty content. It’s an awkward compromise, but it would smooth the path until they came to terms with reality, or at least caught up with the 20th century, never mind the 21st.
The anglo-catholics are harder to please. Their main concern isn’t authority or teaching, but ontology. They set great store by the Apostolic Succession, a pious fiction that there’s been an unbroken line from Jesus through his apostles to the present day episcopate, and they believe that something changes when bishops are consecrated. They also believe that this change depends on possession of a Y chromosome, and that it affects everything you do.
What that means is that you can’t just offer them a man as an alternative bishop – it could only be men who were properly ordained and consecrated by men, who were properly ordained/consecrated by men, and so on, and so on. It’s a theology of taint, based on a version of the “one drop” rule, and it means that entirely parallel structures would be needed to satisfy them in the event of women being ordained bishops.
That would be a strange and self-defeating sort of equality, so I’ve got an alternative suggestion. They can have everything their own way if (and only if) they can correctly identify in a blinded test whether clergy have been validly ordained by a proper male bishop. They can use any means they like, subject to the sort of conditions you’d expect from Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge, but they must be able to tell the difference, which will also verify that they can reliably tell whether the line has previously been broken.
Of course, they won’t be able to do any such thing. There’s no actual difference based on how or by whom people are ordained. You can’t tell the difference between bread and wine that were consecrated by a man or a woman (or not at all, for that matter). They don’t even have any reason to believe that the Apostolic Succession they’re so desperate to preserve wasn’t ended centuries ago in just one irregular ritual.
It’s one thing to play these semantic games and believe entirely unprovable (and frankly bizarre) things because you think they’re appropriate – I’d disagree, but people believe stranger things. It’s an entirely different matter when you put this hypothesis, conjecture and plain invention ahead of real people. They’re perpetuating inequality and threatening to tear the church apart over something they might as well have made up yesterday.
If they want special consideration for their discriminatory beliefs, the very least they should do is to provide some sort of evidence that those beliefs are actually true. If they can’t do that, I struggle to have much sympathy for them, and I suggest it’s a good reason not to waste time trying to satisfy their requirements.
Mark it on your calendar – it appears that I’m in agreement with the Coalition for Marriage (C4M) about something. Specifically, that it’s very good news that Adrian Smith has won his case against Trafford Housing Trust after being demoted for expressing a personal view in a personal context. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his position (mostly wrongs, it has to be said), the McCarthyite approach of disciplining people for opinions is dangerous and illiberal.
But that’s where my agreement ends. Strangely, even as they celebrate this victory, they’re claiming it as proof of the dangers of changing the law. Smith won his case, and there’s widespread agreement on both sides that he should never have faced any action against him. But while acknowledging and even celebrating these facts, C4M somehow seem to believe that this demonstrates a genuine risk of persecution for their views.
You can’t have it both ways – either this victory protects the right to hold a personal opinion or it highlights the danger that certain personal views will be regulated and suppressed. To celebrate this victory while scaremongering in this way is like being acquitted in a murder trial on the very reasonable basis that you didn’t do it, then spreading fears that many more innocent people will be not just tried but convicted of murder. They may be right, but there’s no reasonable basis for the claim.
On its own, this is a fairly trivial example of someone trying to have their cake and eat it (or eat your cake and still have it, if you want the expression to make sense). But it’s depressingly common to see this sort of inconsistency from some groups, particularly Christians. They frequently support their arguments with contradictory beliefs, claiming to be persecuted and counter-cultural even while asserting that they make up a majority and doing their best to dismiss any evidence to the contrary.
You could argue that atheists like Richard Dawkins are guilty of the same thing in reverse, but you’d be wrong. Dawkins is very clear that his census survey was motivated by the suspected discrepancy between people’s self-description as Christian and their beliefs and policy preferences. He believes (with good reason) that the majority broadly support his views, but that their response to a particular census question gives a different impression. Far from having it both ways, he’s specifically trying to resolve the discrepancy one way or the other.
Here’s the deal, guys: you can claim to be speaking for a majority, or you can claim to be persecuted, but trying both at once just makes you look confused or dishonest. It’s theoretically possible for a majority to be persecuted or oppressed (apartheid South Africa would be a modern example), but not when you have an equal right to vote and stand in elections.
So if you see someone arguing for your side with a claim that’s incompatible with your own views, you owe it to your own credibility to challenge them. Otherwise, you’re denying the truth of your own position and making your arguments appear inconsistent and opportunistic.
Have a guess.
Barely a day seems to go by without another unpleasant and disingenuous attempt to deny same-sex couples the same right to have their relationship recognised as is enjoyed by heterosexuals. I usually think it’s best not to dignify them with a response, but the Torygraph’s latest report that teachers could be forced to promote gay marriage or face the sack caught my attention.
It seems that the story comes from a legal opinion provided by Aidan O’Neill QC to the Catholic Church in Scotland, having been commissioned by either (depending on the report) the church themselves or our old friends the Coalition for Marriage. This immediately makes me suspicious that it’s rather less than objective, but let’s look at the facts.
First, notice the article’s efforts to paint a picture with creative and rather cunning juxtaposition of unconnected statements. Take this example:
Aidan O’Neill QC has provided the Catholic Church with a legal opinion stating that equality laws mean teachers will be forced to emphasise the validity of same-sex marriages.
Mothers and fathers with “traditional and often religiously-based views” will be “hard pressed” to insist that their offspring are educated in line with their convictions, he said.
The Catholic Church in Scotland, which commissioned the opinion, said it raised the prospect of classrooms being “flooded” with teaching materials promoting gay marriage.
Notice that a mild opinion that teachers would be expected to recognise same-sex marriages as legally valid (because in this hypothetical case, they would be by definition) moves into a superficially similar statement about children being educated in line with parents’ convictions, and is finally topped off with an alarmist prediction with no legal or factual standing, in the form of the opinion of a church representative. The last paragraph obviously stands out, but the first and second are just as unconnected.
By a neat sleight of hand, the report attempts to suggest that children will be indoctrinated with homosexual propaganda (whatever that is), when the reality is far more prosaic. Broken down by paragraph, the quoted passage says that if same-sex marriage is legal, teachers (and I’d hope everyone else) would be expected to accept and acknowledge that fact; that you’re unlikely to get the state to teach everything in accordance with your personal whims; and that all-male institutions are quite capable of being hysterical.
Once you look at what’s being said, rather than what’s being implied and spun, the story’s very different.
Having established that there was a lot of spin but very little substance to the claims, I went looking for O’Neill’s actual opinion. I haven’t found it, and to be fair, the people who commissioned it are free to do what they want with it, but I did find a document which claims to summarise the opinion. Again, the source is somewhat partial, so caution is advisable, especially as it’s only a summary, but I found it quite revealing. On a number of points, the concerns are obviously either baseless or trivial when clearly stated.
The summary suggests that a teacher could be sacked for refusing to use a storybook dealing with gay marriage – quite right too. Use of such a book does not require a teacher to personally approve of every relationship in the book, or the teaching of English Literature would be a farce.
Similarly, the opinion states that parents could not insist on withdrawing their child from lessons on the history of gay marriage – again, why should they? Pacifist parents couldn’t expect to withdraw their child from any history lessons dealing with war (which, in all honesty, would be just about all of them). Interestingly, this section contains a very similar statement to the “hard-pressed” one quoted above.
Foster couples and marriage registrars, we’re told, could both be discriminated against if they oppose gay marriage, which is interesting. I thought they were trying to promote the narrative that both foster couples and registrars already were. The arguments advanced are nonsense for the same reasons as why the Johns and Lilian Ladele weren’t being persecuted.
Most bizarrely, the opinion expresses fears that it will be compulsory to learn about gay marriage in sex education classes. This is not only entirely uncontroversial unless you can’t tell the difference between learning about something and being forced to approve and participate in it, but children can be withdrawn from sex education classes by their parents.
I lack the time and expertise to thoroughly debunk every point. I strongly suspect, for example, that the risk of a church being refused council facilities because of its beliefs would be just as great now as in the hypothetical world where same-sex marriage was legal. And the arguments around the church’s freedom and establishment are fairly complex, but have already been dissected in some detail and found wanting.
This is a good example of news creation – on this evidence, to claim that anyone would be forced to “promote” gay marriage is only remotely plausible if you have no idea what the word means. But campaigners and kneejerk reactionaries have conspired to spin the story in just that way. Only when you carefully examine the facts do the claims melt away.
Don’t be taken in.
Photo by mensatic, used under morgueFile License
Christianity is facing a grave threat, one that could split the entire church. A combination of a sinfully relaxed attitude from much of the church and the liberalism of secular culture means that this pernicious cancer is spreading, and in danger of destroying everything the church should stand for. In a world where you can now see shameless and outrageous displays of sinful behaviour on TV and in the street, it is vitally important that the church takes a stand and clearly sets out its position on the evils of bigotry.
Do not be deceived – the Bible is clear in its condemnation of bigotry. Some liberals and those who wish to excuse their sin have attempted to confuse the issue by pointing to similar passages which are ignored, and even inventing implausible contextual background to explain why the Bible doesn’t really mean what it says. Nevertheless, despite these efforts, it is clear to anyone who approaches it honestly that the entirety of scripture clearly identifies bigotry as a sin.
It is, of course, inconceivable that practicing bigots could be given any position of leadership in the church – their “lifestyle” alone clearly rules them out. And anyone who has previously been a bigot must expect to undergo a thorough process of repentance and reconciliation before even being considered for further responsibilities. Bigotry is an insidious habit, and the church would not be doing its duty if it didn’t make absolutely sure that reformed bigots have fully changed and pose no further danger.
There should be no suggestion of hatred towards bigots. Even unrepentant bigots are made in God’s image and part of His creation. Christians have a duty to honour that, and to offer them the same love as anyone else. However, it would not be loving to allow them to promote untrue or unBiblical values. Bigots should be kept at a distance by the church, to ensure that there is no doubt as to the church’s position on their sin, and in the hope of eventually leading them to full repentance.
It is also vital that the church campaigns to ensure that the state does nothing to mock its Christian heritage by endorsing such a heinous sin. It is therefore regrettably necessary for Christians to speak out against any move towards giving bigots the same rights and legal standing as others. Bigotry is unnatural, and a perversion of God’s created order, so it would be unthinkable for Christians to support such an idea.
Let me be clear about this – God still loves bigots, and so does the church, but they are in error. The scale of their sin cannot be disregarded, and for the sake of both them and others who might be led astray it is essential that this error is made abundantly clear, and that the state recognises the truth. Sadly, this involves denying them some basic legal rights, for the good of both them and society at large.
It’s the loving thing to do.
Photo by makelessnoise, used under Attribution License
Yet again, Christians are complaining of discrimination and persecution as two Christians take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in an attempt to establish the right to wear crosses at work (full details here). And yet again, their complaints are a rather overblown reaction to a fairly simple case.
The two cases are centred on almost identical issues. Nadia Eweida’s dispute with British Airways revolves around her insistence on wearing a necklace outside her uniform, which contravened BA’s uniform policy for her job. She was offered compromises of wearing the necklace inside her uniform, or a transfer to a role which would allow her to wear a visible necklace, and refused both.
In the case of Shirley Chaplin’s complaint against the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospitals NHS Trust, she was told that it was unacceptable to wear any type of necklace for safety reasons, in case a patient grabbed it. Her suggestion of a shorter chain was rejected, but she in turn refused to replace her necklace with a lapel pin.
In neither case is the wearing of the cross relevant to the uniform policy in question, except that both uniform codes allowed for some degree of flexibility for religious reasons, and in both cases, the employers suggested compromises which would have allowed them to represent their faith in another way, so if anyone attempts to portray this as some form of persecution of Christians, it is entirely safe to ignore whatever they have to say, on this matter at least.
Where the complaints are at least worth considering is on the matter of indirect discrimination. Ms Eweida, in particular, claims that she suffered discrimination as some other religious symbols were permitted within BA’s uniform policy. BA, in response, argue that the permitted symbols could not easily be covered up, and also point out that the permitted symbols are required by the religions in question, something which does not apply to the wearing of a cross necklace.
An interesting aspect of the cases which stems from this, and one which has provoked howls of outrage, is that the government are to state that Christians have no absolute right to display a cross at work. Superficially, this looks like a rather oppressive and anti-religious position, but it only means that there are sometimes good reasons for prohibiting their display, not that it would always be reasonable to do so. I don’t find that a controversial position.
But defining when those reasons are good enough is a difficult equation to solve, which is where it gets tricky. Royal Devon and Exeter Hospitals also asked another Christian nurse to remove a cross necklace, and two Sikhs to remove their bangles and kirpans, but two Muslim doctors were allowed to wear snug hijabs. To me, this seems like a sensible way of dealing with issues of safety and hygiene, but it is conceivable that a different balance could be struck without being obviously unreasonable.
That difficulty is also a good reason for refusing to rule that a particular case is an example of discrimination. With religious freedom competing with issues of corporate uniform, safety and hygiene, any decision more nuanced than “anything goes” (which is clearly undesirable) or an optimistic and unworkable attempt to rigidly and precisely define a complete uniform is inevitably going to leave some people feeling aggrieved that others are being treated more favourably. But that isn’t evidence of discrimination, just that the line was drawn in a particular place. It may be that there is discrimination in some cases, but it isn’t demonstrated by a pragmatic balancing act.
In that context, I think it would also be reasonable to expect employees to take a step back and appreciate that there must be restrictions, and that sometimes they will find themselves on the wrong side of a difficult decision. The argument “that’s not fair, you let him do it” is one that I’d expect from my 5-year-old, not a grown woman 50 years his senior. A spot of understanding and empathy would go a long way, because if everyone took this approach, employers would never be out of the courtroom.
It will be interesting to see how the court rules.