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European religious freedom ruling greeted as step forward
Judges of the European Court of Human Rights. Credit: Council of Europe.
Judges of the European Court of Human Rights. Credit: Council of Europe.

.- A European court's new decision in the case of four British Christians claiming religious discrimination in their workplaces was received as a positive step by an attorney representing two of the plaintiffs.

“This decision here is good, in terms of rights, because it acknowledges that belief in orthodox Christian sexual ethics is actually a....manifestation of faith,” Andrea M. Williams, co-founder of Christian Legal Centre, told CNA Jan. 16.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Jan. 15 that of the four plaintiffs, only one had been insufficiently protected by British law to have her right of freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work. Each of the cases related to the freedom of express Christian identity in public life and in the workplace.

The court found that the freedom of religion of Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian employed at British Airways, was breached after she was kept from wearing a cross while at work.

“Domestic law,” the court found, in the Eweida's case, “did not strike the right balance between the protection of her right to manifest her religion and the rights and interests of others.” The court ordered the U.K. to pay Eweida 32,000 euros, or $42,483.

The other three plaintiffs, who lost their cases, were Shirly Chaplin, a nurse who was kept from wearing a cross at work; Lilian Ladele, who lost her job with a London borough government for refusing to conduct civil partnerships; and Gary McFarlane, a therapist who was fired for saying he would be unable to give sex therapy to homosexual couples, though he did consent to give general counseling to same-sex couples.

The Christian Legal Centre represented Chaplin and McFarlane. The decisions can be appealed to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

The human rights court found that in all four cases, the religious beliefs motivating the plaintiffs' actions at work were worthy of protection, and must be balanced with concerns for the rights of co-workers and homosexuals.

“What the judges did in Europe was to give a wide margin of appreciation – that employers or the national government could decide how those rights were balanced,” Williams explained.

“But our courts, the domestic courts, have failed to recognize that these were even manifestations of belief. So we've made steps forward. Although we lost, we've made steps forward...in our country, we're beginning to lose even the argument that these were manifestations of faith.”

Williams said that this decision can be used in ongoing cases because “we will be able to say the European Court has recognized these beliefs as beliefs worthy of protection.”

In giving governments a broad “margin of appreciation” to balance competing rights, the court “sort of washed its hands” of deciding precisely how these rights are to be balanced in European nations. The Christian Legal Centre had hoped the court would clarify the balance of rights, but the decision can be used to argue for “how these rights are balanced, as a reasonable accommodation.”

“This means that at the Christian Legal Centre we will now go into our domestic courts on our current cases with fantastic legal argument on our side. In the U.K. these judgments have opened up numerous new legal arguments in our favour.”

Williams said she is hoping for “a change in legislation,” and that the Conservative government's discussion of a new Bill of Rights in the U.K. “would need to ensure that Christians are protected.”

The decision with regards to McFarlane is perhaps the most distressing.

“It's true generally that it's very difficult, increasingly it being Christian will be a bar to office, and if marriage is redefined in our nation, increasingly Christians will find it incredibly hard to be in certain positions in the workplace,” Williams stated.

“So that is the reality we are facing, but the more that we see this is for real, the more we will need to do something about it.”

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States, told Vatican Radio Jan. 16 that the decision suggested “a real risk that moral relativism, which imposes itself as a new social norm, will come to undermine the foundations of individual freedom of conscience and religion.”

Freedom of conscience, he emphasized, is actually a necessary condition for a tolerant pluralistic society.

“The erosion of freedom of conscience also witnesses to a form of pessimism with regard to the capacity of the human conscience to recognize the good and the true, to the advantage of positive law alone, which tends to monopolize the determination of morality.”

Tags: Religious freedom

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