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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Keep the Burkini, ban the beach

Beaches are dreadful places. Maybe it would just be easier to ban them.

To hell with political correctness, I'm just going to say it. I think women who wear burkinis to the beach are silly. I also, for that matter, think women who wear bikinis to the beach are silly. Not because of what they're wearing – women, quite obviously, should be able to wear whatever the hell they want without interference from eyebrow-furrowing douchecanoes and neighborhood bigots whose opinions are neither relevant nor requested. No, my problem is with the beach. 

Beaches are dreadful places. I question the judgement of anyone who chooses to go, of their own free will, to a strip of boiling sand that gets in all your squishy bits, just to lie down. I associate beaches with skin cancer and sunstroke and stickiness and sharks. As a neurotic, anxious goth who struggles with the entire concept of organised fun, even the idea of the beach distresses me. I won't go and you can't make me. Especially given that if I did go, whatever I chose to wear, some fragile man somewhere whose entire identity depends on controlling how the women around him behave would probably get outraged and frightened and try to ban me.

Men love to have opinions on what women should wear on their holidays. Nipples are not to be tolerated, and burkinis are now an invitation to Islamophobia, so I can only imagine how my grumpy summer goth robes would go down. The annual summer storm over women's beach attire has a xenophobic twist this year after burkinis – the swimsuit alternative for women who want to conform to a “modest” Islamic dress code – were banned on many beaches in France (although one specific one, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, has been overturned by a test ruling in the country’s highest court).

Not to be outdone, Nicholas Sarkozy has promised to institute nationwide legislation against the “provocative” garment if he's re-elected as president, jumping gleefully on the bandwagon brought to global attention by race riots in Corsica. Photos have emerged of Nice police officers apparently forcing a sunbathing Muslim woman to strip down and issuing her with a penalty slip. I can only imagine what that poor woman must have felt as the state swooped down on her swimsuit, but hey, Sarkozy says that public humiliation of Muslim women is a vital part of French values, and women's symbolic experience is always more important than our actual, lived experience. There are many words for this sort of bullying, but Liberty does not come into it, and nor does Equality. Fraternity, of course, is doing just fine.

Whatever women wear, it's always provocative to someone, and it's always our fault – particularly if we're also seen to be shamelessly enjoying ourselves without prior permission from the patriarchy and the state. If we wear too little, that's a provocation, and we deserve to be raped or assaulted. If we wear too much, that's a provocation, and we deserve racist abuse and police harassment. If we walk too tall, speak to loud or venture down the wrong street at night, whatever we're wearing, that's a provocation and we deserve whatever we get. The point of all this is control – the policing of women's bodies in public, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. It's never about women's choices – it's about how women's choices make men feel, and men's feelings are routinely placed before women's freedom, even the simple freedom to wear things that make us feel comfortable as we queue up for overpriced ice cream. It's not about banning the Burkinis, or banning the bikini. It's about stopping women from occupying public space, curtailing our freedom of expression, and letting us know that whoever we are, we are always watched, and we can never win.

If you ask me, the simplest thing would just be to ban the beach. I consider people on the beach a personal provocation. Yes, I grew up in a seaside town, but some of the beach people come from far away, and they aren't like me, and therefore I fear them. The very sight of them, laying around all damp and happy, is an active identity threat to me as an angry goth, and that means it must be personal. As far as I'm concerned the beach is for smoking joints in the dark in winter, snogging under the pier and swigging cheap cider from the two-litre bottle you've hidden up your jumper. That's all the beach is good for. Ban it, I say. 

I do, however, accept – albeit grudgingly – that other people have different experiences. Some people actually like the seaside. And given that I am neither a screaming overgrown toddler with affectless political ambitions nor a brittle, bellowing xenophobe convinced that anything that makes me uncomfortable ought to be illegal, I have learned to tolerate beach people. I may never understand them. That's ok. The beach isn't for me. Not everything has to be for me. That's what it means to live in a community with other human beings. As performative Islamophobia and popular misogyny bake on the blasted sand-flats of public discourse, more and and more conservatives are failing to get that memo. I'd suggest they calm down with an ice lolly and a go on the Ferris wheel – but maybe it'd be easier just to ban them. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.