Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone writes a monthly column for one of her local newspapers. Here is the latest one, looking at the legal action over people wearing crosses at work.
I was walking down Crescent Road in my constituency the other day when a woman came up to me and said something to the effect of, ‘I think you are a fantastic MP – but I am so upset that you are banning people from wearing the cross’.
So – from the mischievous misinformation from the pages of our print media to my home beat – I am fed up with this misrepresentation – hence this column.
The short version is this: the government is being taken to the European Court of Human Rights in a court case on whether there is a human right to wear a cross at work. What the government has been arguing (and British law states) is that people should be free to wear crosses if they wish, unless their employer has a compelling reason to say ‘no’ (such as risk of it carrying an infection in hospitals).
The grounds for saying ‘no’ have to be reasonable and cannot be used as a backdoor way to discriminate against any religion. They would be subject to a court being able to rule on whether the employer really is being reasonable. The same principle should also apply to the symbols or items that are important to other religions. (This is in fact all how the law is currently interpreted; the case is coming from people who want to change it.)
What that also means the government is also arguing against is the claim that is being made for a special legal right to wear a cross that would trump such provisions and mean that someone could insist on their right to wear a cross, even if an employer had reasonable grounds to say ‘no’.
Alas, some have decided to report that latter as if the government thinks people should have no rights at all to wear a cross. Not so! No-one is arguing that employers should be able to prohibit cross wearing on a whim or without very good reason.
Both I and the Government believe that people should be able to wear crosses openly at work. I have never – in any place or organisation that I have worked for or in over the years – seen or heard of anyone being told not to wear a cross. I have never, in my own office, ever stopped anyone wearing anything.
In fact, the occasional eye-catching case aside, employers are generally very good at being reasonable in accommodating people’s religious beliefs – and rightly so.
The legal case itself involves the Equality Act 2010. Under this, employers can apply certain rules, for example about not wearing jewellery, which may have an impact on people of certain religions. If any policy has that effect, then the employer must have, to use the jargon, a proportionate and legitimate reason for adopting it, such as for health and safety reasons or in order to comply with a legitimate uniform policy.
The current law applies in the same way to people of all religions and beliefs. It makes clear that any actions that would directly discriminate against those of a particular religion, such as Christianity, are unlawful. In addition, where a policy indirectly discriminates against those of a particular religion and this policy cannot be justified, that is also unlawful.
Those are very important provisions and protect against a bigoted employer trying to discriminate in the guise of health and safety or other workplace policies. They are also why the Government believes that the Equality Act 2010 (supported by all three parties) strikes the right balance between employees’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs at work and the business needs and requirements of the particular employer.
The Government greatly values the vital role that Christian organisations have in our society and the part they play in national life, inspiring a great number of people to get involved in public service and providing help to those in need.
So – I explained the actuality to my constituent – and she said she had thought it very peculiar that someone who is as liberal as I am would wish to ban the cross.
* Lynne Featherstone is a minister at the Department for International Development and blogs at www.lynnefeatherstone.org.