A question from David Davis to Kenneth Clarke yesterday:
On 4 September, the European Court of Human Rights will hear the case of Nadia Eweida v. the United Kingdom Government. I understand that the Government are resisting the case. Miss Eweida is the lady who effectively lost her job with British Airways for wearing a cross, a symbol of her religion, at work. Is it any part of the British Government’s policy to support the denial of people’s religious rights at work? If not, will we reconsider our position on that case?
There are good reasons why the government should continue to fight this case and, to use David Davis’s words, why the government should continue to deny people’s religious rights at work.
The very idea of religious rights at work, beyond the basic protection against discrimination, is absurd. Why should someone have rights that other employees don’t just because they believe something strongly?
Until recently, people didn’t have any religious rights at work. Since the religious discrimination legislation was introduced, the courts’ interpretation of it has, for the most part, been fairly narrow, which is why in both Nadia Eweida’s and Shirley Chaplin’s cases, the right of the employer to set a dress code was upheld.
But what will happen if they win their ECHR case? It will effectively create a legal right to wear religious symbols in the workplace. This is the bit that a lot of the right-wingers who support Eweida and Chaplin don’t get. They think they are fighting for Christian values, or something like that, but if the ECHR finds in their favour, the ruling will apply to all religions.
Many of the people who are most vocal in their backing for Eweida and Chaplin are the same ones who scream about creeping sharia and dhimmitude whenever Muslim workers refuse to handle alcohol or demand the right to wear the niqab. But if the ECHR upholds the right to wear the cross in defiance of an employer’s instructions, we will see a lot more cases like this. If an employee’s deeply held belief trumps an employers dress code, or even, as in Shirley Chaplin’s case, its health and safety policy, then religious people get a free pass.
And what counts as a religion? EU discrimination law refers to ‘religion or belief’ and courts have recently ruled that environmentalism and opposition to fox hunting are covered by religious discrimination law. If strong belief endows people with extra rights in the workplace people will be claiming all sorts of things. The courts will have to decide what counts as a belief, what that belief demands and whether it counts in each case. It’s an extreme example but, if a Christian has the right to wear a cross, does a Nazi have the right to wear a swastika?
Victory for Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin would almost certainly lead to claims from those of other faiths and beliefs. The Mail and Telegraph would soon change their tunes when councils were unable to stop teachers wearing full burkas. Instead of this we’d get this.
As I said last time this came up, the government is not seeking to deprive Christians, or anyone else, of rights 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. So yes, David Davis, the government should continue to deny these rights. And those who think they want Eweida and Chaplin to win should be careful what they wish for.