Strasbourg ruling marks a setback for claims of Christian victimisation

But even a defeat can be said to advance campaign groups' narrative that Christians are being "marginalised" by militant secularism.

Today's judgement by the European Court of Human Rights in the cases of four Christians claiming discrimination on the basis of their beliefs is generally a good thing. Score-keepers in the ongoing culture wars will be quick to note a three-one win by the forces of secularism. Of the four claimants, only Nadia Eweida, the British Airways check-in clerk who was told that her small silver cross violated the company's uniform policy, had her claim upheld. But her victory is more than just symbolic. It undermines the one strong argument her backers had that Christians in this country face anything that might be called oppression. The other cases usefully serve to mark out the boundaries between religious self-expression and the wider interests of society.

Taken together, the cases of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin - a nurse whose similar wish to wear a cross at work was turned down on health and safety grounds - introduce an easily-understood principle. Generally, the judges decided, employees have a right to manifest their religious convictions (their right under Article 9 of the European Convention) by wearing a symbol of their choice. Lawyers of the government had argued, much to David Cameron's embarrassment, that the principle only applies where the symbol is an explicit requirement of the faith or worn openly by a majority of the faith's adherents. The domestic courts had reached much the same conclusion. But for the European judges, it was enough that the cross is a recognised Christian symbol, and that Eweida believed that demonstrating her faith openly by wearing it was important to her. The model upheld is one of individual belief rather than corporate religious identity. The court seeks to protect the believer, not the religion as a whole. This is important.

Chaplin lost, meanwhile, because her employer had a stronger rationale for interfering with her right to manifest her belief, in this case the health and safety of patients. Eweida's relatively discreet cross posed a much more trivial challenge to her employer's corporate identity. BA itself later seemed to acknowledge this by changing the policy.

One consequence of these decisions should be to reduce any perception that the law treats Christians wishing to wear a cross less favourably than members of other religions. Pressing the belief that Christians are getting a raw deal compared to, say, hijab-wearing Muslims or turban-wearing Sikhs has been central to the agenda of campaign groups such as Christian Concern, aided and abetted by the Express and the Daily Mail. Unfortunately, the approach of the domestic courts, which have tended to restrict the Article 9 right to "manifest" religious belief to practices that are central or mandatory in a faith tradition (which wearing a cross isn't) has sometimes fostered this impression. Today's ruling may help to redress the balance.

The two Christians who wished to be exempted from offering services to gay or lesbian clients both lost their case. Lillian Ladele worked as a registrar in Islington but lost her job because she refused to register civil partnerships, while Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, objected to being required to give sexual advice to same-sex couples. In both cases, the court accepted that their refusal in this way was a manifestation of the claimants' religious belief; but it found the interference justified in the light of the wider social goal of anti-discrimination. In these cases, where there was a balance to be struck between competing rights of religious manifestation and non-discrimination, the Court was content to leave matters to the discretion of the authorities concerned.

McFarlane had an especially weak case, having embarked upon a course of training in psycho-sexual therapy in the full knowledge that he would be expected to advise both gay and straight couples. In Ladele's case, however, there was a strongly worded dissent from two of the judges. Noting that when she became a registrar there was no such thing as civil partnerships and that her desire not to conduct them could have been accommodated, the judges accused Islington of having "pursued the doctrinaire line, the road of obsessive political correctness. It effectively sought to force the applicant to act against her conscience or face the extreme penalty of dismissal."

I have some sympathy with this view. There's little doubt that Ladele's objections could have been accommodated and no gay couple would have been any the wiser. Her argument always struck me as somewhat illogical, though: as an evangelical Christian she may have believed that only heterosexual marriage was valid in the eyes of God, but as a registrar she was called upon to pursue a civil function with no religious dimension whatever. All that Ladele was being asked to do was to smile sweetly, say the appointed words, and fill out some paperwork.

For campaign groups like Christian Concern and the Christian Institute, which between them represented the claimants, litigation forms an integral part of what is essentially a political strategy. On the one hand, they make full (many would say over-enthusiastic) use of the legal tools given to them by recent equality legislation as well as the growing number of cases dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights. Obviously they would prefer to win these cases. But even a defeat can be said to advance their wider narrative that Christians are being "marginalised" by militant secularism. It might even enhance their chosen self-image as an oppressed group. And the publicity that these cases inevitably attract (along with others, such as those involving guest-house owners who refuse the custom of same-sex couples) serves to rally the faithful, whether the cases themselves are won or lost.

By "Christians", of course, they mean a particular type of Christian. Not all believers share their particular obsessions (notably opposition to gay equality)  or think of themselves as part of a beleaguered minority. The argument is at least as much an internal Christian one as a debate between Christians and the forces of secularism. That's the point.

 

British Airways employee Nadia Eweida holds her crucifix as she poses for pictures after the court's ruling. Photograph: Getty Images
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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.