Christian Complaints of Persecution are at Cross Purposes
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.