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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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.