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15 January 2013

Religious beliefs need common sense protection – response to European Court judgement

We need more common sense for Christian belief in public life – that’s the view of the Evangelical Alliance following a key European judgement on religious freedom.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on four religious freedom cases today, finding in favour of one of the Christians but against the other three.

In the most important case, Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar who worked for Islington Council, lost her claim for direct discrimination on the basis of freedom of conscience and religious belief.

The court’s decision – by a majority of five judges to two – did not consider her religious freedom unlawfully restricted. Ladele had asked not to conduct civil partnership ceremonies when the law changed in 2005, but her request was refused because Islington Council considered it conflicted with their equal opportunities policy. The court found that Islington Council and the UK courts acted within an allowed margin of appreciation when handling different convention rights, in this case the competing rights of sexual orientation and religious belief.
However, the court found in favour of Nadia Eweida, ruling that she had her religious freedom unlawfully restricted when she was stopped from wearing a cross at work.

Nurse Shirley Chaplin was also asked not to wear a cross on a necklace, but the court found that her employer was justified in making this request. They also found against Gary McFarlane, in a case against his employer, Relate.

Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance, said: “The court’s recognition of Christian belief in everyday life is welcome, but in only finding in favour of Nadia Eweida, it has shown a hierarchy of rights now exists in UK law.
“While for some the cross is a vital part of their worship, at the heart of Christianity is not about a set of rules, but a God that brings people into a new life of freedom. This new life is then lived out 24-7, and cannot ever be restricted to just our private lives.

“If UK courts are going to protect religious freedom more fully in the future they need to better understand the nature of Christian belief. Developing better religious literacy needs to become a priority.
“The failure of the court to protect the religious freedom of Lillian Ladele in living out her faith in a way consistent with historic Christian belief shows the limitations of this judgement. We need solutions that will allow for the reasonable accommodation of the expressions of religious belief in all its diverse forms.
“If we want to live in a society that is diverse and can live with its deepest differences there needs to be a fuller protection for religious beliefs, convictions and actions.

“We hope that in the light of today’s decision, employers, public bodies, and courts will seek to understand religious belief better and build relationships with faith groups to help achieve this. The alternative of a society that is in perpetual legal conflict with itself is both undesirable and unsustainable.”
The Evangelical Alliance will consider the judgement and its legal implications in more detail in the coming days.

From an initial assessment it is notable that two judges disagreed with the decision on Lillian Ladele. They said that where courts find conscientious objection is a manifestation of deep religious conviction and beliefs, there is a need to strike a fair balance in which respect for the individual's moral conscience is taken into account and reasonable accommodation should be made. The dissenting judges stated that:

"It was incumbent upon the local authority to treat her differently from those registrars who had no conscientious objection to officiating at same-sex unions – something which clearly could have been achieved without detriment to the overall services provided by the Borough including those services provided by registrars, as evidenced by the experience of other local authorities. Instead of practising the tolerance and the “dignity for all” it preached, the Borough of Islington pursued the doctrinaire line, the road of obsessive political correctness. It effectively sought to force the applicant to act against her conscience or face the extreme penalty of dismissal – something which, even assuming that the limitations of Article 9:2 apply to prescriptions of conscience, cannot be deemed necessary in a democratic society. Ms Ladele did not fail in her duty of discretion: she did not publicly express her beliefs to service users. Her beliefs had no impact on the content of her job, but only on its extent. She never attempted to impose her beliefs on others, nor was she in any way engaged, openly or surreptitiously, in subverting the rights of others.”

The dissenting judges also found that Islington Council acted disproportionately when they insisted Lillian Ladele officiate civil partnership ceremonies. The majority opinion did not share this view, though the fact that there was such wide disagreement shows how polarised views about human rights are and how difficult it can be to regulate with fairness.