The Daily Mail splashed their front page this morning with “An Insult to Christians”. No, that’s not how I’m describing it, that is their actual headline.
They might think it is a descriptor of the dreadful events they outline in their story, but it is a far closer label for their own treatment of Christians. And in particular in thinking that the situation they discuss is an insult to anyone.
The “insult” is that followers of other religious belief systems including paganism and non religious deeply held belief systems such as vegetarianism will receive the same protections as Christians. Firstly, this is not news. Secondly, it is not controversial (although a little tricky to implement). Thirdly, this is not an insult.
The law has for a while placed all religious and non religious beliefs on a par with regards to their protection under the law. Although only in the last decade has it been codified into statute through regulations following the 2003 Equality Act, and then drawn together in the 2010 Act, court precedence has provided strong protection for non-Christian beliefs in a similar manner (although due to differences in beliefs never quite the same).
The dreadful situation before us today has occurred because the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued guidance last month on how employers should handle religious beliefs and their manifestation. This in the wake of Nadia Eweida’s successful claim in the European Court of Human Rights that her employer had failed to protect her freedom of religious expression when they said wearing a visible cross was against their uniform policy. Legal precedence on religious belief protection is often carried across from one belief to another so there was absolutely nothing of controversy or even interest in the EHRC saying the judgement would affect employers responsibilities towards those with other beliefs.
The controversy has been whipped up because a gaggle of Tory MPs on the right of their party were baited into giving a critical judgement of the EHRC. This is hardly a difficult topic to exploit for that effect, it is high on the list of bodies those of their ilk would prefer were scrapped. What is most controversial about the guidelines is that they had to be written at all, because one would have thought it was common sense. But apparently this morning has demonstrated just why it is necessary.
The requirement to protect non-religious beliefs is also not a new one. A key legal case in 1978 Arrowsmith v United Kingdom found that the applicant’s beliefs in pacifism were deeply held and sufficient to warrant protection under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The court found against the claimant for wider reasons but importantly held her beliefs were worthy of protection. The ECtHR judgement in the case of Eweida et al also found that the actions of all four claimants were borne out of religious beliefs and therefore worthy of protection. The Court also went further and said that it was not up to them or any other applicable body to decide what was or was not of sufficient centrality in a belief system to merit protection, or what actions arising from those beliefs should be counted as a manifestation of belief. What the court held to matter was that the belief and action was of importance to the applicant.
Therefore, while this eases the difficulty of deciding when a belief or action becomes sufficiently meritorious for protection, it opens up a whole other can of worms in potentially allowing any belief or opinion protection on these ground. While this is a tricky situation for courts to adjudicate it is not a particularly controversial one. While the beliefs and actions may come under Article 9 jurisdiction it does not mean an employer is forced to allow them. In the case of Eweida the court found that the uniform policy was insufficient grounds to restrict the wearing of a cross, but in Chaplin found the health and safety concerns in a hospital, coupled with the proposal of alternative ways of wearing the cross, were sufficient grounds and found against the claimant. The court also found in Ladele and McFarlane that the equality and anti-discrimination policies of their employers also provided the latitude for their requests to be denied. (This is a more controversial decision and what is at the heart of an emerging hierarchy of rights among equality strands.)
Therefore I doubt that a vegetarian employed in a kitchen role would be granted a request not to handle meat. If it is a central part of the job which would put an unreasonable burden on the company and other staff I suspect the request could be legitimately denied. If however, the staff member is employed in another role but is asked on occasion to assist in the kitchen the request may well be expected to be granted. If we expect a common sense type of accommodation of reasonable requests we also have to understand situations where without any hint of an attack on Christian belief they might not be accommodated.
Finally, this is not an insult. An insult would be to suggest that Christian beliefs alone are worthy of protection. Or moreover that Christian beliefs and practices need more protection than other beliefs. I want the freedom to practice and promote my beliefs and I think the surest way of ensuring that is to fight for others to have the same rights that I do. I may think they are wacky, I may find them absurd. I may even find them offensive. But I want to fight for their freedom of belief: I want them to be as free to promote their beliefs as I want to be to promote mine.
Freedom of belief means freedom of belief for everyone. And at the heart of the Christian message is a voice of freedom that calls into the wilderness. That releases slaves from their captors. It is freedom to choose to worship a God who chose to send his Son so that we could have life and life in all its fullness.
It is the freedom not to worship that makes the choice to worship such a precious gift we have to offer.
To suggest that Christians would rather others were not free to follow their beliefs is an insult.