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Europe’s Highest Court to Rule on Right of Employees to Wear Cross at Work

STRASBOURG, FRANCE – Europe’s highest court, located in Strasbourg, will be handing down its ruling next week on the cases of four British Christians who claim to have been discriminated in the workplace because of their religious beliefs.

The four cases include:

Nadia Ewedia and Shirley Chaplin, who claim their rights were violated by their employers when barred them from wearing crosses visible to others at work.

Lillian Ladele, a government marriage registrar who objected to conducting civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples who says she was disciplined and later forced to resign after refusing to comply.

Gary McFarlane, a counselor with a national organization that provides sex and relationship counseling, who says he was fired over a dispute about providing counseling to same-sex couples.

All four base their appeal on Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

James Eadie arguing for the government contended that a balance must be struck between individuals’ right to practice their religion and the rights of others, and the wider community. He insisted at an earlier hearing in September that the European Convention on Human Rights does not give employees the right to demand that employment conditions be changed to accommodate their religious belief, and that “employees are free to resign if they consider that the requirements of their employment are incompatible with their religious beliefs.”

Paul Diamond is legal counsel for both Chaplin and McFarlane. He argued that Chaplin, a nurse, was prohibited from working at a public hospital because she refused to cover up a cross she had worn at work throughout her 30-year nursing career. An employment tribunal ruled in favor of her health trust employer, saying its policy was based on health and safety grounds, not religion, and adding that wearing a cross was not a requirement for Christians.

Diamond said Chaplin had worn the cross for over three decades of working as a nurse and never once posed a danger to patients and has a stellar record. Her employer offered no evidence that her actions had posed a safety or health risk.

Dinah Rose, legal counsel for Lillian Ladele, told the court that, contrary to the government’s assertions about employees wanting to force their employers to change work conditions, quite the opposite was the case. In Ladele’s case she had already been working as a marriage registrar for years before the law changed to give same-sex couples similar legal rights to married couples under civil partnership provisions.

European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ) director Gregor Puppinck also advised Eweida in the hearing. He said this week that the British government’s ultimate argument was that the applicants’ “freedom of religion is respected because they are free to resign and to practice their religion in private.”

Apart from the fact that some of the applicants were not “free” to resign as they had already been fired, he said, the argument was also a manifestation of the “trend to transform freedom of religion into a mere freedom of worship.”

“This relapse of religious freedom to a freedom to worship is a step back to the level of freedom afforded to religious minorities in countries, such as Islamic and communist countries, where Christians are only permitted to worship in private,” said Puppinck.

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