Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Cross purposes

Why the government is opposing the right of two workers to wear crosses at work.

American usage makes a distinction between "the government" -- the permanent apparatus of the state and those who work for it -- and "the Administration" headed by the President. In Britain, the word "government" is ambiguous. In popular usage it tends to refer to the group of ruling politicians. But it also means the "permanent government", the civil servants, lawyers and other officials who remain in place irrespective of which party happens to be in power.

This can lead to confusion. Yesterday, for example, theSunday Telegraph claimed that "the government" was opposing the case brought before the European Court of Human Rights by two Christians who sought the right to wear a cross or crucifix at work. Indeed, David Barrett's report attributed the decision to "ministers" and produced quotes denouncing "the government" from, among others, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey and Andrea Williams, the omnipresent boss of the Christian Legal Centre.

Williams described it "as extraordinary that a Conservative government [sic] should argue that the wearing of a cross is not a generally recognised practice of the Christian faith." The Telegraph went on to contrast the ban with the coalition's support for same-sex marriage, and quoted a remark by Delia Smith as evidence of "growing anger among Christians" over the government's stance. The piece provoked the response the Telegraph must have been hoping for. More than two-and-a-half thousand comments have so far been registered, the vast majority seeing the story as proof of the government's duplicitous or even anti-Christian attitude. A high proportion singled out David Cameron personally for abuse.

Yet it's unlikely that any minister has even seen the document on which the Telegraph based its report, which was a formal submission to the Strasbourg court drawn up by government lawyers. The submission in effect sets out the decision reached by Lord Justice Sedley and his colleagues in 2010 when considering the case of Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in clerk who objected to her employers demand that she conceal the cross she wished to wear as a testimony to her Christian faith.

The Court of Appeal concluded that Eweida's wish to wear the cross was a personal choice rather than a religious requirement, and therefore did not attract the protection that the law afforded to religious dress such as Sikh turbans or Muslim headscarves. Her case, and that of Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was told she could not work on an NHS ward while wearing a crucifix, is formally taken against the government, that is against the British state. Unless the government brings in legislation to explicitly allow Eweida and Chaplin to wear their crosses at work, government lawyers have no choice but to set out the legal position as arrived at by the domestic courts.

This procedural manoeuvre implies nothing about the actual opinions of ministers on the issue. Indeed, given pro-faith comments in recent months by the likes of David Cameron, Sayeeda Warsi and Eric Pickles, it would be amazing if the submission did reflect the views of most members of the government. The Mail is today claiming that Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister, "ordered" government lawyers to oppose the case, but the only evidence it has for this is a quote from a Home Office spokesman setting out the government's understanding of the Equality Act. Even if she was consulted she is more likely to have been acting on official advice rather than pro-actively directing policy.

An irony in all this is that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a body regularly denounced by the Mail and the Telegraph (as well as in a recent report by Evangelical MPs) for its alleged anti-Christian bias, is supporting Eweida and Chaplin at Strasbourg. In its recent review of the state of human rights in Britain, the EHRC argued that the British courts had interpreted the law too narrowly. In particular it was wrong to conclude that because it was not a religious requirement for Christians to wear a cross all the time individual Christians need not feel a personal obligation to do so.

The EHRC notes that while the Strasbourg court has in the past "tended to take the view that a practice amounted to the "manifestation" of a religion or belief only if required by the particular religion" recent cases have taken a different line. For example, a Polish Buddhist was allowed to adhere to a vegetarian diet in prison even though refraining from meat is not an explicit requirement of Buddhism. It stresses that Article 9 of the European Convention protects the beliefs of individuals, not merely of groups. What matters, the report argues, is how the individual interprets her faith. Wearing a cross might not be a requirement imposed on Christians, but they feel a strong personal obligation to do so, and that is what matters.

For what it's worth, I think the EHRC is right about this, and "the government" is wrong. Indeed, when it comes to matters of religious belief the language of group rights is more than usually unhelpful. The core of any religious belief is personal commitment; how that commitment is manifested is secondary and in any case highly variable. This is especially true of Christianity. While some Christians may feel a strong personal need to wear a cross, or not to work on Sunday, or object to same-sex relationships, many others do not. But that fact does not diminish the sincerity with which some believers assert their personal need to do so. And it's in any case dangerous for the law to start adjudicating about belief.