PEOPLE with strong religious beliefs are free to express their faith privately but cannot insist their employer accommodate them, a landmark hearing on religious freedom has heard.
Four British Christians who claim they were discriminated against because of their faith had taken their fight to the European Court of Human Rights.
The court in Strasbourg, France, yesterday heard the cases of two workers forced out of their jobs after visibly wearing crosses; a Relate relationship therapist sacked for saying he might not be comfortable giving sex counselling to homosexual couples; and a Christian registrar who wishes not to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.
They argue that the actions of their employers contravened articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit religious discrimination and allow “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
But a lawyer for the UK government, which is contesting the claim, argued their rights were protected in private only.
James Eadie, QC, representing the government, told the nine judges that domestic law struck a fair and compatible balance. “These four linked cases at their core raise questions about the rights and the limits to the rights of employees, to force their employers to alter employment conditions to accommodate the employees’ religious practices,” he said.
“The convention protects individuals’ rights to manifest their religion outside their professional sphere. However, that does not mean that in the context of his or her employment an individual can insist on being able to manifest their beliefs in any way they choose.”
He added: “There is no basis for interfering with that conclusion.”
The four, whose cases have been backed by Anglican Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, argue that the actions of their employers amounted to religious discrimination. British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, from Twickenham, London, is one of the four. She was sent home in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross or hide it from view.
James Dingemans QC, representing Miss Eweida, said she was a practising Christian who wore a small cross as a “personal expression of faith” and worked alongside Sikhs, Muslims and Jews who were allowed to wear items with religious significance, including skull caps and the hijab. “Miss Eweida regarded wearing and displaying the cross as integral to her identity and being,” he said. “She is hardly the first Christian who has wanted to wear the cross as a distinguishing feature of her faith.”
The hearing was adjourned and the court reserved its judgment to a date yet to be set.
Earlier, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said if the four won their case, it would lead to a “hierarchy of rights” with religion at the top. This would be “bad news” for employers and gay people, he warned.
“Any further accommodation of religious conscience in UK equality law would create a damaging hierarchy of rights, with religion trumping all,” he said. “This is likely to be a landmark case determining the future direction of equality law in the UK, and potentially also in Europe.”