Nadia Eweida fights for right to wear cross at work (Reuters / Dylan Martinez)

Nadia Eweida fights for right to wear cross at work (Reuters / Dylan Martinez)

Two Christian British women have taken their case over religious liberty to the highest level, now set to square off against the Government of the United Kingdom at the European Court of Human Rights over their right to wear a cross or crucifix at work . In opposition to the women, the government will have to state publicly whether it backs the right of Christians to wear the symbol at work. The Telegraph reports that government ministers will argue that because displaying the cross is not a “requirement” of the Christian faith, employers can ban the wearing of the cross and fire workers who insist on doing so:

“The Government’s refusal to say that Christians have a right to display the symbol of their faith at work emerged after its plans to legalise same-sex marriages were attacked by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain.

A poll commissioned by The Sunday Telegraph shows that the country is split on the issue. Overall, 45 per cent of voters support moves to allow gay marriage, with 36 per cent against, while 19 per cent say they do not know.

However, the Prime Minister is out of step with his own party.

Exactly half of Conservative voters oppose same-sex marriage in principle and only 35 per cent back it.

There is no public appetite to change the law urgently, with more than three quarters of people polled saying it was wrong to fast-track the plan before 2015 and only 14 per cent saying it was right.

The Strasbourg case hinges on whether human rights laws protect the right to wear a cross or crucifix at work under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’

The Christian women bringing the case, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, claim that they were discriminated against when their employers barred them from wearing the symbols.

They want the European Court to rule that this breached their human right to manifest their religion.”

The European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg, France, and is not a part of the European Union’s patchwork of institutions but rather aligned to the Council of Europe, which is dedicated to the protection of human rights across 47 countries. The New York Times reports that the court considers cases brought against nations that are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, and notes that British Prime Minister David Cameron has recently called for the court to restrict its power to overrule national judgements.

RT reports that the U.K. government will now fight in the court against Eweida and Chaplin, asserting that the Christians have no right to wear a cross or crucifix at work:

“Nadia Ewedia is a British Airways employee, who was asked to cover her cross while at work, and was placed on unpaid leave when she refused to do so. Shirley Chaplin is a nurse moved to a desk position after she refused to remove a crucifix.

The women claim they were discriminated against when their employers barred them from wearing a cross and crucifix respectively.

The government position is that wearing the cross is not a ’requirement of the faith’ and therefore employers can ban the wearing of the cross at work.”

The Telegraph reports that lawyers for the two women claim that the government is setting the bar too high in their position, and that “manifesting” religion includes doing things that are not a “requirement of the faith.” They go on to argue that Christians are given less protection than members of other religions who have been granted special status for garments or symbols such as the Sikh turban and kara bracelet, or the Muslim hijab.

The government’s position has been criticized by British religious leaders. The UK Press Association reports that The Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu has attacked the government for denying that Christians have a right to wear the cross at work, saying on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show:
“My view is that this is not the business of government actually. They are beginning to meddle in areas that they ought not to. I think they should leave that to the courts to make a judgment.

“If someone wanted to manifest their belief as a Christian that they wanted to wear a cross – after all at their baptism they are sealed with a cross of Christ – so if they decided to say ‘I know I am sealed with it, but I am going to wear it’, I think that is a matter really for people and that we should allow it. The government should not raise the bar so high that in the end they are now being unjust.”

The Telegraph notes that Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, accused government officials and the courts of “dictating” to Christians, and said the government position regarding crosses was another example of Christianity becoming sidelined in official life.