LONDON — The British government’s efforts to allow employers to ban the wearing of the cross at work have been described as “discriminatory” and “theologically illiterate.”
The government is fighting a case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, following the efforts of two British women to establish their right to wear a small crucifix around their necks.
In 2006 Coptic Christian Nadia Eweida was suspended by British Airways for refusing to remove the cross, which the airline claimed breached the company’s uniform code. Shirley Chaplin was barred from working on hospital wards by Royal Devon and Exeter National Health Service Trust after she refused to hide the cross she wore around her neck.
It is the first time the government has been forced to say whether or not it recognizes the right of Christians to wear a cross as a sign of their faith.
Reports suggest that they will argue that it is not a requirement of the Christian faith so Christians do not have the right to wear one. As such, they will argue that employees can dictate whether it is allowed and reprimand those who refuse to comply.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien has called on Catholics to wear their crosses and crucifixes with pride.
The leader of Scotland’s Catholics used his Easter Sunday homily at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, to assert that secular authorities should not fear the symbol of Christ’s triumph.
He said, “Displaying the sign of the cross, the cross of Christ should not be a problem for others — but rather they should see in that sign an indication of our own desire to love and to serve all peoples in imitation of that love and service of Jesus Christ.”
Drawing on Pope Benedict’s 2010 address at Westminster Hall that religion is not a problem for legislators to solve, Cardinal O’Brien said those “words were a great clarion call for Christians at this present time to emphasize that no governments or public bodies should be frightened of Christians and their influence.”
The cardinal continued, “Marginalization of religion should not be taking place at this present time — rather the opposite. Here in our own country where we do place a great emphasis on tolerance, surely our Christianity should be an indication to others of our desire, while living our Catholic Christian lives, to tolerate others who do not have our same values.”
As such, he asked, “Why shouldn’t each and every Christian similarly wear proudly a symbol of the cross of Christ on their garments each and every day of their lives?”
Commenting that he knew many wore a crucifix or a cross, he said, “Whether on a simple chain or pinned to a lapel, the cross identifies us as disciples of Christ and we should wear it with pride.”
Neil Addison, a lawyer and national director of the Thomas More Legal Center in Warrington, England, said the government is arguing that it is permissible to ban the wearing of the Christian cross because it is not compulsory, unlike the Sikh turban or the Muslim hijab.
“My big worry with this approach is the idea that a secular government and secular courts are allowed to discriminate between religions based on theological points within the religions themselves,” he said. “There seems no awareness that this distinction is itself discriminatory because it gives a privileged legal position to those religions with specific and detailed rules as [it goes] against those with more flexible rules.”
Addison said that “the distinction misunderstands the nature of religious practice, which is often a complex mixture of rules, beliefs, customs and rituals that often may not be formally prescribed but which are, nevertheless, regarded by religious believers as integral parts of their faith.”
For centuries, he added, “the wearing of a cross by Christians has been regarded as a fundamental custom and practice of most Christians, even though it has not been formally required as an obligation of faith.”
“Therefore, to attempt to distinguish between the wearing of a cross and the wearing of a Sikh turban or Islamic hijab on the basis that one is required but the other is not is to create a completely theologically illiterate, artificial and unrealistic distinction. It is an approach that goes against the fundamental principle of a secular society with secular courts because it involves secular courts making religious decisions as to what is or is not compulsory in a religion,” he concluded.
In a speech at Liverpool Hope University, Catholic peer Lord David Alton said we should all “wonder aloud whether religious freedom and the gains made in 1829, with the emancipation of Catholics and Jews, remain safe in a country whose courts say … that a young woman working for British Airways may no longer wear a small cross around her neck lest it causes offense.”
“It would be a great loss to this nation if the foolish notion gained a foothold that faith has no place in the public square,” he added.
The case has also attracted attention from outside the United Kingdom. Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Department for External Church Relations, told Russian television he regretted such developments.
“These people have not experienced persecution against the Church; they do not know what it is when your crosses are torn away from you,” he said.
Claiming that “a grave mistake is made by today’s Western liberals, who actually impose on free people the standards of a totalitarian regime,” Metropolitan Hilarion said, “it is a sign of some madness and extreme moral decay when such norms are not only introduced but even discussed. What is wrong with a cross worn on one’s neck? Who and how can it harm? Why can one wear beads, an amulet, an image, but a believer cannot put on a cross under his or her clothes? We will never agree with it and will fight against it.”
Register correspondent James Kelly is a columnist for The Universe, the highest-circulation Catholic weekly in Britain and Ireland, and a researcher at the University of London.