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 Daily Mail’s reaction to Tom Daley’s baby is a reminder we’re not all equal yet

Columnist Richard Littlejohn seems to find it hard to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness.

Seeing as it’s LGBT+ history month, you would be forgiven for thinking that, just maybe, Britain could make it through 28 short days without a homophobic media controversy. But sadly, where optimism appears, the right-wing British press too often follows.

After the news that British Olympic diver Tom Daley and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance-Black are expecting their first child via a surrogate, radio station LBC quickly found itself in hot water. The station asked Twitter users whether, in their opinion, there is anything “sinister” about the woman carrying Daley and Lance-Black’s child being absent from the majority of media coverage. While there has long been a debate about the ethics of surrogacy, there are plenty of straight couples who have also turned to this option, and many nuances depending on the context, so the timing and wording of the question seemed pointed. LBC subsequently apologised for the “badly worded debate”.

But meanwhile, the printing presses were whirring.The main course to LBC’s starter, the Death Star to its Vadar and the hot dog to its mustard was springing into action. Otherwise known as: The Daily Mail.

Seemingly unable to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness, the paper employed its most un-lethal weapon, Richard Littlejohn, to put things right. In a piece entitled “Please don't pretend two dads is the new normal”, the columnist condemned the pair’s social media announcement, before expressing his discomfort at women being treated as “breeding machines” (again, note the sudden interest in the surrogacy debate). Next he takes aim at the media, lambasting them for covering this news just like any other baby announcement. Littlejohn then asks a series of erratic questions in quick succession. “Is Daley or his husband the father? Was it Bill, or was it Ben? Or neither of them?” Like a GSCE candidate who failed to revise for the exam, he soldiers on: “More pertinently, never mind Who's The Daddy? Who's The Mummy?”

By this point, you can practically picture Littlejohn, sweaty and misshapen, frothing at the mouth as he pummels his keyboard. Sensing that he’s out of material but still has half a page to fill, he haphazardly directs his hostility towards a trans woman who appeared in the news earlier this week, because why bother being homophobic when you can be transphobic too? Concluding the piece on a crescendo of awfulness, he “jokes” that he’s looking forward to the pictures of Daley breastfeeding, because apparently you can’t be a parent if you don’t breastfeed.

I suppose I should thank Littlejohn for proving, yet again, that the best way to transform male right-wing columnists into strident feminists is an opportunity to remind gay or trans people that they’ll never be seen as equals. Pre-emptively defending himself against accusations of homophobia within the article, Littlejohn claims he supported civil partnerships (but notably not same-sex marriages) long before “it was fashionable” to do so. Yet in 2004, the year that civil partnerships were introduced, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde dedicated an entire column to tracking his obsession with LGBT issues. “In the past year's Sun columns, Richard has referred 42 times to gays, 16 times to lesbians, 15 to homosexuals, eight to bisexuals, twice to 'homophobia' and six to being 'homophobic' (note his inverted commas), five times to cottaging, four to "gay sex in public toilets", three to poofs, twice to lesbianism, and once each to buggery, dykery, and poovery.” She writes, concluding: “This amounts to 104 references in 90-odd columns.”

The reaction to Littlejohn's latest piece was quick. Several organisations pulled out of advertising in the Daily Mail, a signal that the days of men like Littlejohn may soon be over. But whether published or not, this brand of homophobia is still prevalent in Britain. It appears when people claim not to have a problem with LGBT+ people, until one of their children comes out as gay or has a gay friend. It appears every time a person starts a sentence with “I’m not being homophobic, but…” It appears when gay parents, even those who have won Olympic medals and Academy Awards, are still only seen as a marginally better option that children being left to, as Littlejohn puts it, “rot in state run institutions where they face a better-than-average chance of being abused”.

As I suspect Littlejohn knows, no one is claiming that two dads is the new normal. Two gay parents is still a relatively new image for media and the public to digest, which has enabled this “debate” to happen. When 58 per cent of gay men are too afraid to hold hands with a partner in public, the idea that gay relationships are accepted enough to be considered anywhere close the “new normal” is ridiculous.

Yet Daley and Lance-Black’s announcement has revealed that, while homophobia is still mainstream enough to make it on to major platforms in the UK, it does not go unchallenged. We might not know what the tomorrow’s “normal” will be, but relics like Littlejohn represent the very worst of the past.