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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder