Red tape is OK for Christians, it seems

According to several news sites around the world, the British government is about to ban the wearing of crosses at work. Even the Scotsman, which I usually think of as a serious newspaper, screamed “Outrage at move towards banning Christian crosses from workplace”.

Of course, the government is doing nothing of the sort, though you’d be hard pushed to find any rational discussion of this case in most of the newspaper reports. Try doing a news search. It really is quite depressing.

Here is the root of the story.

After being told they could not wear crosses at work, and having lost their cases against their employers in the UK courts, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin took their fight to the European Court of Human Rights, which will deliver its judgement sometime in the next few weeks. According to the Telegraph, which claims to have copies of leaked documents, the government intends to oppose their case. This has been spun, remarkably quickly, into a government attempt to victimise Christians (yes, that again) by denying them the right to wear crosses at work.

It’s all complete rubbish.

Let’s get one thing straight. There is no right to wear a cross in the workplace. What is more, there has never been a right to wear a cross in the workplace. Not now, not fifty years ago, before those hippies and liberals ruined the country, not even a hundred years ago, in that golden summer when we were a God-fearing nation and everybody went to church.

In fact, there is no specific right to wear anything to work. Employers have a right to impose a reasonable dress code and, as Clare Murray explains, almost every attempt to challenge it has failed. Even when employees have brought cases on the grounds of sex discrimination they haven’t had much luck. A woman who challenged employers rules on wearing skirts and a man who challenged the requirement to have short hair both lost their cases.

So the employer’s right, within reason, to tell employees what they can and cannot wear is well established. Women have no right to wear trousers, men have no right to wear pony tails and no-one has the right to wear jewellery, not even a cross, if their employer has a good reason for asking them not to. Eweida, Chaplin and their supporters are not fighting to defend some ancient right, they are fighting to create a new one – the right to special treatment based on their religious belief. The government’s lawyers are simply defending the status quo.

Furthermore, the right that Eweida et al are trying to create would make the definition of religious belief a lot more complex. The government maintains that wearing a visible cross is not a requirement of the Christian faith and is therefore not covered by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of belief and conscience. Eweida and her supporters argue that it is not for the government to say what is or isn’t a requirement of their faith.

Which sounds reasonable until you think through the implications. If anyone can define their religion or belief, and the behaviours and symbols attached to it, in any way they choose, anyone could demand anything. The right of employers to set dress codes or require the attendance of employees on certain days would be severely undermined. If I claim that my Christian sect’s interpretation of Easter always happens to fall on the three days of the Grand National, does my employer have to give me that time off every year? OK, I’m being facetious but you can see where this might lead. A victory for Nadia Eweida and her supporters would muddy the waters on religious discrimination and create a new headache for employers.

Which is why I find it rather strange that those who are most vocal in their support of Nadia Eweida are, for the most part, the same people who keep banging on about the need to remove red tape. Should she win her case, it will create a whole new grey area around the rights of employers versus the right of those with deeply held beliefs to demand special treatment. A grey area that will only become clear when tested by further case-law. This is likely to make employers even more risk averse when dealing with the variety of religions we now find in most workplaces. That means more policies, more complexity and more HR people saying to managers, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” In short, more red tape.

The government is not seeking to deprive Christians, or anyone else, of a right they once had. Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin and their supporters are attempting to create new workplace rights for Christians and, by extension, for the followers of other religions and beliefs too. Oddly, they are being supported by people who are usually dead set against red tape of any kind. The same people who want to withdraw employment protection for most workers want to extend the workplace rights of the religious few. Even for those who claim to despise regulation, red tape, it seems, is fine when it protects the things they like.

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21 Responses to Red tape is OK for Christians, it seems

  1. Pingback: Red tape is OK for Christians, it seems - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. JuliaM says:

    “Eweida, Chaplin and their supporters are not fighting to defend some ancient right, they are fighting to create a new one – the right to special treatment based on their religious belief. The government’s lawyers are simply defending the status quo.”

    Good point. But sits rather uneasily with a government determined to allow, nay encourage and facilitate, special treatment based on religious belief.

    So long as that religious belief isn’t Christian…

    • Actually, the law doesn’t say that there should be special treatment based on religious belief (and neither have I heard a government spokesman suggest otherwise). What it does say is that no-one should suffer discrimination in the workplace on account of holding a religious belief (or having no religious belief). So for example, it would be against the equality act to fail to recruit or promote someone simply because of their religious belief. It doesn’t matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist – an employer cannot take this into account.

      (Ironically, there is one case where Christians can get special treatment, which is that if they work in a shop they cannot be forced to work on a Sunday).

  3. H says:

    Your argument was surely lost when they allowed Sikhs to wear turbans instead of peaked caps on the buses and exempted Sikhs from the motorcycle helmet rules.

  4. externalities says:

    Brilliant article!

  5. Jim says:

    So if I as an employer decided to refuse to let a female employee wear a burka (which is not a specific religious requirement of Islam) then what do you think the outcome would be?

    • Well in the case of Azmi v Kirklees Metrobolitan Borough Council the employer was allowed to prevent an employee from wearing a veil. What matters is whether the employer’s requirement can be justified as meeting a valid business need. The courts apply the same rule whatever religion is at issue. I know lots of people don’t believe that- but it really is true!

    • The law would support you – see the case of Azmi v Kirklees MBC which upheld exactly the same principle as Rick is outlining

  6. Laurie A says:

    We’ve also had Dhinsa v SERCO in a slightly different context – a Sikh prison officer was not entitled to wear his kirpan in prison.

  7. Andrew H says:

    Good post (as usual) Rick. As a Christian I chose not to wear anything that shows that I am one – and given my job involves being impartial and seeing the public occasionally I think it would be inappropriate of me to do so. Indeed were my employers to say that wearing a cross was inappropriate I am not sure I would argue. Ironically the only person I work with who regularly wears a cross round their neck is not a Christian – she sees it as jewellery!

    Besides what shows you are a Christian is not what you wear but how you behave. I don’t know the detail of the two cases, but on the face of it it seems a bit unchristian to be making such a fuss.

  8. JohnB says:

    Interesting — thanks for post.

    It doesn’t change the underlying point, though.

    Whether they currently have it or not, people *ought* to have a right to wear an outward display of their faith.

    Without reading their submission myself, the government’s argument that Christianity doesn’t _require_ the wearing of a cross strikes me as specious. Compulsion and dogma are not absolute in any religion or any cultural norm; it’s a continuum, precisely because there is not — and cannot be — a single definition of “Christian”. Every follower will have their own interpretation of the various texts that purport to be holy and their relevance in the modern world, which means that every follower may have their own ideas of what is “required” of them.

    So long as what you choose do to doesn’t physically get in my way (no proselytising) and carries no safety risk (no loose long hair in a manufacturing plant), you should be able to do whatever the fck you like as part of your cultural/religious beliefs.

    • Rick says:

      Why just ‘as part of your cultural/religious beliefs’? Why should religious belief entitle you to do as you please when others can’t?

      • JohnB says:

        Fine. Let me expand my last sentence:

        So long as what you choose do to doesn’t physically get in my way (no proselytising), carries no safety risk (no loose long hair in a manufacturing plant), doesn’t prevent me from doing my job (no wearing a Burqa in a classroom where seeing facial expressions are required for good teaching) and subject to an employer’s right to impose a uniform on their employees, you should be able to wear whatever the fck you like for any reason, whether it’s because of your cultural/religious beliefs or not.

  9. Rick says:

    @JohnB Exactly! Subject to an employer’s right to impose a uniform on their employees. In which case, the claims of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin both fail.

    • JohnB says:

      Yeah, I thought you’d say that. :) I’ll admit to not following this case in much detail. Do they work at McDonalds? In the army? Do they, in fact, work at a place with an actual *uniform*? By “uniform”, I mean a standardised, identical outfit that all employees of a given level/position/rank are required to wear.

      Even then, since uniforms are about outward appearances, they should still be allowed to wear something that is hidden from view. That means that crosses worn around the neck but inside the shirt and not able to be seen would be okay, as would Mormon magic underwear.

      • Rachel says:

        Yup John – both had actual uniforms. And in neither case was there a problem with the hidden from view cross, but they didn’t want to hide it away.

      • Steve Williams says:

        @JohnB

        Yes, they both wore a uniform. One was a nurse, and the other was a BA stewardess. Devon NHS Trust said that the cross broke health and safety legislation, and it has to be said I thought there was a general prohibition on nurses wearing jewellery that hangs from the body.

      • Not only did they both have uniforms, but in Chaplin the employer suggested other ways in which the cross could be displayed without hanging from a necklace – including placing it in her identity badge. She rejected this because the chain the cross hung from was, for her, an integral part of the wearing of the cross.

        It was a case about dangling jewellery not about religious expression.

  10. (Sorry for the delay between replies)

    Okay, given that both of them were meant to be in actual, full uniforms and at least one of them had a health-and-safety reason for not wearing the crosses as they wanted, then I find myself coming down against them on this particular case.

    I would insist, though, that the general case still applies, albeit subject to the grey area of having somebody (a court, parliament) defining where a uniform ends and a dress policy begins.

  11. Pingback: Cameron’s Speech To Religious Leaders: A Response | The Blog of The Re-Enlightenment

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