Those who thought that the debate about where to draw the line in accommodating religious beliefs at work had been pretty much ended by the Equalities & Human Rights Commission’s Guidance on Religion and Belief in the Workforce (see our post of 15 February) should think again.
The Telegraph online reported last week that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg declined on 29th May the application of the unsuccessful claimants in the “crucifix cases” to appeal to the Grand Chamber of the Court. The claimants were Ms Ladele, disciplined by Islington Council for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies; Mr McFarlane, dismissed after refusing to discuss sexual issues with same-sex couples; and nurse Ms Chaplin, transferred to desk duties for refusing to take off her crucifix necklace, in each case on the grounds of their Christian beliefs.
Predictably this latest rejection has been greeted (though not so far by the Daily Mail, perhaps merely a matter of time) as more evidence of the “persecution” of Christians. Former Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is reported to have said “I think the real worry is that this could mean the systematic exclusion of people from certain roles in public life simply because they hold their beliefs”. Similarly, the Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre (CLC), the body which supported Chaplin and McFarlane to Europe, has said that the decision could mean more discrimination against Christians: “This will be the start of many cases like this. Teachers who refuse to teach same sex marriage will lose their jobs or won’t get them”. She refers to the McFarlane decision as the “policing of thought”.
With all due respect, these are seriously misleading pictures of the position. This is not a question of what people think, but of how what they believe impinges on their ability to do the job they are contracted to perform. Mr McFarlane can think what he wants about homosexuality, but if he declines as a result to perform a material part of his responsibilities, what does he expect will happen? [In fairness to him, the CLC website suggests that the issue arose on a hypothetical basis only as part of a training course, and that there was no actual risk at that time of the public being denied that service. If that is right then his dismissal for gross misconduct does indeed seem harsh, but that should sound in an unfair dismissal claim, not religious discrimination.]
As to teachers who decline to teach part of the established syllabus, yes, they may lose their jobs. This is not because of the beliefs they hold but because they are not willing to subordinate them temporarily to the full and proper performance of their role. And if you hold beliefs which lead you to discriminate against protected sections of the public, then yes, you may well be excluded from certain roles in public life, in just the same way as if you declined as a matter of personal credo to deal with women, ethnic minorities or the disabled.
The European Court’s decision last week has been described by the UK’s Coalition for Marriage Campaign as “an unprecedented attack on religious freedom and expression”. In reality it is clearly no more than a reiteration of the EHRC’s sensible Guidance earlier this year that religious beliefs (whether Christian, Muslim or anything else) should of course be accommodated in the workplace so far as practicable, but only up to the point where they impinge on the rights and freedoms of others.