Only last Autumn, the Coalition told us that employment law was a drag on the country’s economy. That was a long time ago, though, and now the government is hinting that it might bring in new regulations. Last week it raised the possibility of new employment rights for forces reservists and today, David Cameron promised new laws to protect religious people. Red-tape, it seems, is yesterday’s battle.
David Davis’s asked him essentially the same question he asked Kenneth Clarke last week about Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin’s cross-ban case. (See previous post.) But, while Clarke responded by saying that this is a complex matter and we will have to see, Cameron immediately promised to change the law:
I fully support the right of people to wear religious symbols at work; I think it is absolutely a vital religious freedom.
What we will do is, if it turns out that the law has the intention, as has come out in this case, then we will change the law and make clear that people can wear religious emblems at work.
Which makes me wonder whether he really understands all this. If he thinks the law should change, why is the government contesting the case at the ECHR?
Furthermore, there is no ban on religious symbols in either case. Both employers banned jewellery; BA because it was against its uniform policy and the NHS trust on health and safety grounds.
As far as I am aware, no employer anywhere in Britain has specifically banned the display of religious symbols. These cases arise when employees demand the right to ignore existing employer policies on the basis of their religion.
Changing the law, then, would blow a hole in the employers’ policies. Many of you may decide that employers don’t have the right to set a dress code or to tell workers they can’t personalise their vans. Perhaps we should bring in a law saying people can wear what they like at work, though I can’t see that going down too well on the Tory back-benches. But that’s not what the religious campaigners want. They want special rights just for themselves. No problem with a jewellery ban provided I can wave my new-found rights at you and refuse to comply.
Potentially more serious is the health and safety question. Should employees really be allowed to challenge health and safety rulings just because they happen to believe something strongly? Dangling jewellery is either dangerous or it isn’t. It’s no less dangerous just because it’s got a cross on it.
If Eweida and Chaplin are successful, or if they are not but David Cameron changes the law anyway, religious rights will come into conflict with health and safety rules. Which will take precedence?
This, warn employment lawyers, is a recipe for chaos.
Here’s Darren Newman:
Specifically changing the law to allow religious symbols to be worn seems an unnecessary step. There is no rule banning religious symbols at work and the issue has only arisen in a tiny number of cases. It is generally a bad idea to change the law to accommodate unusual cases that just happen to have received a lot of publicity. Any new law would cause more problems than it solved and lead to considerable uncertainty. Would all religious symbols be allowed? What about religious slogans? The potential for argument and costly litigation is enormous.
And John Read:
If the Government changes the law to give employees an express right to wear religious symbols at work, it could not be limited to just visible crucifixes, and case law has shown that a very wide range of beliefs are capable of being protected under the Equality Act. If religious symbols were positively allowed, then arguments that employees should be given an express right to manifest their beliefs at the workplace in other ways would certainly follow, even if, like Eweida, these manifestations were not required by the religion or belief in question. This could create chaos for employers.
What many Tory MPs and right-wing columnists can’t seem to grasp is that if the law protects the wearing of crosses it protects the wearing of other religious symbols too, like niqabs, for example. But you can be sure that, when Muslims start demanding similar rights, the same people who support Chaplin and Eweida will be bleating on about Islamification and dhimmitude.
As I’ve said before, a law protecting religious symbols would be a significant extension of religious rights in the workplace. It would apply to any number of belief systems and probably some that we don’t even know about yet. Potentially, it could protect not only crosses and niqabs but also piercings and tattoos. It will be ironic, and very funny, if employers start complaining about being sued under David Cameron’s law by the painted and pierced. How ‘business friendly’ will he be then?
Update: Darren Newman has posted on this too, clarifying the facts and drawing this conclusion:
I’m not a human rights lawyer and for all I know, Eweida will win her case before the ECHR – although as I understand it that will involve something of a departure from their approach in previous cases. If she does win, I doubt the Government will be happy with the consequences.
Of course it now appears that if she loses, the Government will be honour bound to change the law. When they see what that involves and consider some of the implications, they won’t like that option either.
And neither will the businesses that have to deal with those consequences.
Update 2: A piece in, of all places, the Daily Mail from Anglican priest George Pitcher, with the blunt title, David Cameron’s cynical bid to lift the non-existent ban on wearing Christian crosses.
These people [Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin] are encouraged, in their innocence, by over-enthusiastic Christian lawyers and busy-body bishops, who all too readily claim that they are the victims of ‘persecution’, which diminishes and insults real victims of religious persecution, from Pakistan to the Sudan.
That they’re exploited by Christianity’s professional whingers is bad enough. But when our Prime Minister seeks to make cheap and distractive political capital out of a non-existent problem, while the economy dies and there are instances of real human suffering both at home and abroad that he could do something about, then that is a cynical act of spin that is beneath contempt.
Now there’s some Christian outrage for you!