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Ministers won't back cross-ban Christians: Ex-archbishop condemns 'illiberal' assault on faith
The Government was slammed last night for refusing to support a group of Christians fighting for their rights in the European courts. Four individuals who have been disciplined at work or lost their jobs after refusing to remove crosses or to conform to gay rights laws are attempting to overturn the decisions of British courts and tribunal. They had hoped for support from Ministers after a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, appealed to Prime Minister David Cameron on their behalf.
Dismay: Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, left, appealed to Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf group of Christians fighting for their rights in the European courts
But the Government told the European Court of Human Rights that it backed the British judges and does not accept that the Christians have suffered discrimination.
To the dismay of Lord Carey, the Government even said that wearing a cross or a crucifix was not a ‘generally recognised’ Christian practice – even though Church leaders say it is a hugely significant symbol.
Lord Carey said: ‘I am very disappointed for the individuals concerned who have simply followed their conscience.
‘Such is the result of a liberal establishment that has become deeply illiberal.’
In landmark hearings, the court in Strasbourg is to consider the cases of Shirley Chaplin, a Devon nurse banned from working on the wards after she failed to hide a cross she had worn since the age of 16, and Nadia Eweida, a check-in clerk for British Airways who was told to remove her small crucifix at work.
The European judges will also examine the cases of Relate counsellor Gary MacFarlane, who was sacked after suggesting he would refuse to provide sexual therapy to gay couples, and registrar Lilian Ladele, who was disciplined by Islington council in North London after refusing to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies.
Cross: The court in Strasbourg will hear cases including that of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker told to remove her small crucifix at work
Their cases are among a series in which Christians have clashed with their employers over the equality legislation introduced by the last Government, prompting widespread dismay from Church leaders.
A cross-party group of MPs, led by Tory Gary Streeter, is now holding an inquiry into the issue of religious discrimination.
Even the Government’s own watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has told the European Court that the British courts have failed to protect the rights of some believers.
Christian lawyers say the rights of the four to express their beliefs at work should be protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, which allows individuals to ‘manifest’ their faith in public.
But the Government, in 40 pages of legal arguments drawn up by the Foreign Office, said they were not protected because neither wearing a cross nor following their conscience at work was a core requirement of their faith.
Echoing British court or tribunal judgments, the Government said wearing a cross was not ‘a practice of a religion in a generally recognised form’.
It said that even if the European Court did decide that Ms Eweida and Mrs Chaplin could wear crosses, employers could overrule this because of health and safety rules banning jewellery at work. It also denied that the rights of Ms Lidele and Mr MacFarlane had been breached, arguing that they could have resigned rather than stay in jobs where they had to carry out tasks that were against their beliefs.
The Government added: ‘The UK is entitled to conclude . . . that other than in limited prescribed circumstances, religious belief does not justify discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation.’
But the Christian Legal Centre, backed by Lord Carey and former Anglican Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali, says the visible wearing of the cross or crucifix is ‘clearly an aspect’ of the practice of the Christian religion.
The centre’s head Andrea Williams said: ‘Sharing faith in the public square goes to the centre, the heart, of a Christian’s life and belief – it’s who they are.
The Government’s interpretation is not backed by the overwhelming majority of people who want to live in a country where people are free to disagree.’