It seems that the Equality and Human Rights Commission agrees with the many Christians who believe that courts and tribunals “have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims”.
In a Press Release issued on 11 July 2011 the Commission says that it is concerned that “rulings already made by UK and European courts have created a body of confusing and contradictory case law. For example, some Christians wanting to display religious symbols in the workplace have lost their legal claim so are not allowed to wear a cross, while others have been allowed to after reaching a compromise with their employer”. The Commission is at pains to point out that it is not supporting only Christians in this context – one example it gives is that of a Jew who asks not to have to work on a Saturday for religious reasons.
The Commission has announced that it is now seeking permission to intervene in four separate cases which Christian workers are taking to the European Court of Human Rights. The four cases (names of the respondents below are the original names – at the European Court of Human Rights all the cases are technically against the United Kingdom):-
- – Eweida v British Airways Plc (Ms Eweida, a BA employee who worked in customer services at Heathrow, lost a religious discrimination claim against BA which had barred her from wearing a cross on a necklace while at work);
- – Chaplin v Devon and Exeter Hospitals NHS Trust (Nurse Shirley Chaplin lost a religious discrimination she brought against Devon and Exeter Hospitals NHS Trust after she was removed, on health and safety grounds, from front-line duties because she wore a crucifix on a necklace);
- – Ladele v London Borough of Islington (Ms Ladele, a local authority registrar, lost a religious discrimination she brought against Islington after they insisted that she officiate at civil partnerships notwithstanding her wishing not to do so on religious grounds);
- – McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd (Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor, lost a religious discrimination claim after he was dismissed for refusing, on religious grounds, to provide help and counselling to same-sex couples).
These four are particularly high profile examples of cases which led senior Anglicans to raise concerns at the recent General Synod over what they saw as the pursuit of “equality” at the expense of religious freedom (see the Daily Telegraph, 11 July 2011). However, they of course are not alone and it is not only the religious discrimination regulations which are in point. Indeed, the Anglican church as employer found itself heavily criticised by an employment tribunal in 2008 when the Diocese of Hereford was ordered to pay just over £47,000 to a gay man, John Reaney. This was on the basis that the Bishop of Hereford had acted in breach of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 by refusing Mr Reaney a job as a youth worker.
Given cases such as those noted above, it is not surprising that employers and HR departments generally tend to “play safe”. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission puts it, “They may be being overly cautious in some cases and so are unnecessarily restricting people’s rights. It is also difficult for employees who have no choice but to abide by their employer’s decision”.
Clarification of the position can only be to everyone’s benefit: hopefully the judgment(s) of the European Court of Human Rights in these cases may help.
Meanwhile, there have been calls for the abolition of the Commission on the basis, among a variety of reasons put forward, that it produces a number of “false and petty” claims of injustice. While many of its contributions could be seen as questionable, this is an example of an issue, which, in my view, it was right to raise.