Are Christians facing discrimination in the workplace?

The Not Ashamed campaign, launched yesterday with the support of some senior clergy, claims that Christians are facing discrimination at work. The website has stories from “those who have suffered for standing up and speaking up for Jesus Christ in the workplace”.

But when you delve into each of these cases, the stories are more complex.

Maths teacher Olive Jones was not sacked (ignore the headline and read to the end of this article) and the council seemed to act reasonably, given the complaints against her, and asked her to return to work.

Nurse Shirley Chaplin lost her tribunal case against her employer after she refused to remove a crucifix necklace on health and safety grounds. During the hearing it emerged that Sikh and Muslim staff had also been told to remove or modify their religious dress. The tribunal found that the employer had acted in a reasonable manner, even offering to move Mrs Chaplin to an alternative job.

Sheila Matthews, the pediatrician dismissed from Northampton’s adoption panel for refusing to deal with adoption requests from gay couples, lost her case too. She was severely criticised by the judge, who said that her claim had no basis in fact and awarded costs against her.

The story is the same for most of the causes célèbres of anti-Christian discrimination. Duke Aramchee, Gary MacFarlane and Lillian Ladele all failed to prove their cases.

The number of religious discrimination claims is still relatively small and only 2 percent of them were successful last year. These cases tend to get a lot of publicity, though, not least because the adherents of the particular faith with the grievance make sure that they do. The amount of noise around them is therefore disproportionate. Just because there are a few high-profile claims does not mean that we are seeing a trend towards religious conflict in the workplace.

It does seem, though, that the law against religious discrimination has emboldened those wishing to make an issue out of their religion and scared some employers into over-reacting. As Darren Newman says, ignorance of the law paralyses managers with fear and makes employees “think that they can receive thousands of pounds in compensation for every perceived slight they endure.” It also makes religious groups think they can use the protection of employment law to claim special rights in the workplace.

So far, most claims of religious discrimination are failing. The principle seems to have been established that employees can’t decide they don’t want to do parts of their job, or don’t want to obey dress codes, because it’s against their religion.

On closer examination, the evidence of discrimination against Christians in the workplace, as claimed by the Not Ashamed campaign, doesn’t stack up. The cases quoted show only that there is a small group of people determined to make an issue of their religious belief and ready to use the law against their employers to do so. In most cases they have failed. However, they will probably keep trying and these rare but very noisy cases will continue to cause headaches for employers for some time yet.

Update: I thought I was going to be first up with this but then I found out that Ministry of Truth, uber-swot that he is, has already done it.

Update 2: I missed this piece by Stephen Simpson at XpertHR, who also takes a number of the ‘anti-Christian’ cases apart. He notes:

The key factor in employers successfully defending these cases is that (with the possible exceptions of the cases involving wearing crosses at work, which could have gone either way) they all had a good reason that justified their actions.

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4 Responses to Are Christians facing discrimination in the workplace?

  1. Pingback: Are Christians facing discrimination in the workplace? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. This is great analysis of the reality behind the news. I write about employment issues in the United States and many of my articles are based on letters that I receive from readers. Complaints of “discrimination” against Christians has been an ongoing theme this year. (At the same time, many of the people complaining want to deny rights to people of other religions, but that’s another story). For example, I’ve had complaints that all of the following create discrimination against Christians: talking about Buddhist ceremonies (http://www.evilskippyatwork.com/?p=20), referring to an office gathering as a “Holiday Party” instead of a “Christmas Party” (http://www.evilskippyatwork.com/?p=198) and allowing an employee to display a photograph of himself with his same-sex partner (http://www.evilskippyatwork.com/?p=47). None of these “complaints” had merit, but all took up the employer’s time and had an adverse impact on workplace attitudes and harmony. You make an excellent point that employers need to take complaints seriously, but at the same time they need to avoid over-reacting.

  3. Great post as ever. I’d add two points.

    First of all it is worth noting that the cases on religious discrimination have not just been about Christianity. The tribunals have taken exactly the same approach when dealing with Islam. In fact the rulings in the cases you describe are all based on the earlier case of Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council where it was ruled that a support teacher did not have the right to wear her veil during lessons because it interfered with the language development of the children she was working with. We have seen a similar approach in relation to employees refusing to handle alcohol or pork products. Basically if your religious belief prevents you from doing a crucial part of your job, then you need to think about getting a different job – whatever religion you happen to belong to.

    My second point is that we only have religious discrimination claims at all because of the law that the last government introduced in 2003. That in turn was based on a European Directive introduced following the Treaty of Amsterdam. Prior to 2003 it was perfectly legal to refuse to employ Christians (or any other religious group). Far from being persecuted, the rights of religious groups have actually increased in recent years. The claims we have seen are not the result of increased persecution but the fact that there it is now possible to claim religious discrimination, when it wasn’t prior to the end of 2003.

    Many of the people complaining that the current law does not provide enough protection should at least acknowledge that without the EU social affairs agenda and the last Labour Government, they wouldn’t have any protection at all.

  4. Pingback: links for 2010-12-08 « Embololalia

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