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.

 

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.