Lynne Featherstone writes… Banning, or rather not banning, crosses at work

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.

Indeed!

* Lynne Featherstone is a minister at the Department for International Development and blogs at www.lynnefeatherstone.org.

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28 Comments

  • LondonLiberal 13th Apr '12 - 10:19am

    thanks lynn – one gets more sense from you than from any member of the fourth estate.

  • Daniel Henry 13th Apr '12 - 1:56pm

    Simon, quoted from the article above:

    “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).”

    Sounds to me like the government position is already what you ask for.

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Apr '12 - 7:52pm

    @Daniel Henry

    Trouble is, that is not the government’s position. The government submission to the ECHR supports the view of the judges in the Eweida case (I haven’t read the Chaplin judgement in full) that the wearing of a cross is not a recognised way of practising the Christian faith, As such, an employer who bans the wearing of jewellery cannot even in principle be guilty of discrimination or of suppressing the right of religious expression. There would be no case to answer.

    Featherstone’s article is a classic example of attacking a straw man. I read the original Telegraph piece, the various pieces in the Mail (including the Letts article), and I even checked out what The Sun has been saying. None of them are accusing the government of banning people from wearing the cross. The press reporting I have seen of this case has been commendably accurate. All the papers are saying is that the government (a) does not believe there is a human right to wear a cross, and (b) is supporting the rights of employers in these two specific cases to not permit the wearing of visible crosses – both of which are undeniably true.

  • Paul Walter 13th Apr '12 - 9:04pm

    Why bother to mention that BA have changed their policy and now allow crosses to be worn visibly, and never banned crosses being worn, only the visible wearing of them?
    Why bother? Some people will continue to ignore this.

  • Paul Walter 13th Apr '12 - 9:20pm

    @Stuart Mitchell “Featherstone’s article is a classic example of attacking a straw man. I read the original Telegraph piece, the various pieces in the Mail (including the Letts article), and I even checked out what The Sun has been saying. None of them are accusing the government of banning people from wearing the cross”
    So we’ll need the thinnest of Fag papers to separate ‘banning people from wearing the cross’ from (in the Mail’s words):
    “Minister tells Europe Britons do not have right to wear cross at work…the Home Office say any Christian that doesn’t like it should find another job”. http://bit.ly/IvrtlQ

  • I am grateful for this post, but there appears that work still remains: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9203953/Britains-Christians-are-being-vilified-warns-Lord-Carey.html

    I am more inclined to trust Lynne that Lord Carey, but nevertheless Paul Walter makes some important points that I feel need addressing.

  • Just re-read my post and it isn’t clear what I was saying.

    I think we need to get our message out more clearly and quickly – as Paul suggests – the media too easily misrepresent us and we need to rapidly respond with our side. Lynne’s done some great work in ensuring the law is clarified and strengthened, but our enemies in the right wing press can too easily distort our good efforts without a strong rebuttal from our side.

    I phoned George Street in March asking our media team to ensure we put out a press release, but nothing appeared on our website. I also asked the Lib-Dem Christian Forum to phone me back on this, but nothing happened. The media team said they would respond if necessary, but it’s taken a month before something is publicly available and I fear too many of our Christian members have swallowed the Mail / Telegraph pieces and won’t see this excellent response.

    I don’t know if we’re understaffed or we simply don’t see these issues as being as important as they are to many members, but we certainly need to tighten up a bit more.

    Many thanks Lynne for setting the record straight.

  • Michael Seymour 14th Apr '12 - 10:06am

    So does that mean British Airways were at fault when they banned one of yheir staff for wearing a cross?

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Apr '12 - 10:11am

    @Paul Walter

    Well those two statements mean completely different things to me. The government has never given me the right to eat rice pudding, but I don’t take that to mean I’m banned from eating rice pudding.

    Saying the government wants to ban crosses would be completely and obviously wrong, which is why Lynne Featherstone has set that up as an easily knock-downable straw man.

    But when the Mail says “Minister tells Europe Britons do not have right to wear cross at work”, how is that misleading? It’s a bald statement of fact. Likewise when the Mail writes “the Home Office say any Christian that doesn’t like it should find another job”, that’s a perfectly fair paraphrasing of the government’s submission, which says :-

    “Where the individual in question is free to resign and seek employment elsewhere or practise their religion unfettered outside their employment, that is sufficient to guarantee their Article 9 rights in domestic law.”

    The government argues that wearing a cross is not a form of Christian observance, and that a Christian’s rights are protected so long as they are free to resign and wear their cross elsewhere. Those are facts, and I can understand why some Christians feel insulted by them. I’d just like to see Lynne Featherstone attempt to justify those two arguments head on, rather than attack a straw man.

  • Patrick Smith 14th Apr '12 - 12:48pm

    If employees are free to war crosses,if they freely choose,subject to a few minority cases where the wearing of it might infringe Health and Safety regs. i.e.carrying an infection in a hospital, what on this Earth is the fuss all about?This is absolute common sense and the status quo.

    The maximum limits of individual freedom and liberty must be protected according to J.M Mill`s treatise and there has to be under this maxim a presumption that all those seeking to do so, should be free to wear a cross at their place of work or in a public place.

    This sacrosanct freedom is extended to all religions and none.

  • Stuart: Lynne Featherstone hasn’t set up any strawmen – she’s pointing out what some members of the public think, and why those views are based on a misunderstanding of what is happening.

  • There is no straw man: Human Rights are legally distinct from Employment Rights, human rights are not subject to a ‘reasonable test’ [Human Rights Act], wheras employment rights are [Lynne refers to the Equality Act 2010]. Clearly, to me at least, the wearing of the cross should be subject to reasonableness for all sorts of reasons.

    Eweida lost the case for compensation for unpaid leave on ‘reasonableness’ grounds [whether right or wrong I am undecided, but she did reject a compromise wheras BA changed their policy]. The error, in her case, is that she has tried to take this, entirely spuriously, as a Human Rights issue. This is therefore not a straw man.

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Apr '12 - 3:26pm

    @Mark
    Whether it’s a straw man or not, would you at least agree with me that the question of whether the government is “banning crosses” is an irrelevance and a distraction? Anybody who understands the issue at all knows full well that the government is not banning crosses. Admittedly I’ve only seen about 10 press articles (including the more well-known ones), but none of them claim that the government is banning crosses. By focussing on this narrow non-question, Lynne’s article is failing to deal with the real issues or answer the legitimate questions that people have about the government’s response to these cases.

    @Henry
    You say it isn’t a straw man but don’t give a reason why.

    You’re probably more familiar with the law than I am. Can you point me in the diretion of the part of Equality Act which might have helped either Eweida or Chaplin? I have read the full text of the Eweida judgment, and the judges in that case totally dismissed the idea that stopping people from wearing crosses amounted to discrimination. Though this judgment was made under the previous law (Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003), the judge nevertheless referred to the soon-to-be-implemented Equality Act and offered the opinion that he didn’t think it would make any difference.

    I think this is another case of the Lib Dems being out-manoeuvered by the Tories. Cameron made it pretty clear last week that he effectively disowns the government submission to the EHCR, and claimed that the government is only defending the case because it is obliged to support the original judgment. He even said that he will be prepared to change the law to give Christians more rights if the courts rule against them. Yet Lynne F seems to think it’s her duty to defend the contents of this submission.

  • Stuart: If people believe something that is wrong, correcting them isn’t an irrelevance, rather it’s a sensible thing to do.

  • Paul Walter 14th Apr '12 - 7:20pm

    Stuart: “I think this is another case of the Lib Dems being out-manoeuvered by the Tories. Cameron made it pretty clear last week that he effectively disowns the government submission to the EHCR, and claimed that the government is only defending the case because it is obliged to support the original judgment. He even said that he will be prepared to change the law to give Christians more rights if the courts rule against them. Yet Lynne F seems to think it’s her duty to defend the contents of this submission.”

    It’s Cameron’s government, for goodness sake. He can’t disown it, “effectively” or ineffectively. That is exactly the sort of populist, disingenuous nonsense that we got from the Tory party on the Tony Martin case but they have done nothing to change the law on intruders. It is also the sort of disingenuous nonsense we got from Eric Pickles on formal prayers during council meetings but those have also turned out to be empty words.

    And by the way, in the elements you describe, Cameron is pandering, to a large extent, to people who do indeed think the government wants to ban crosses at work. So, he’s working, to a large extent, on the assumption of what you describe as a “straw man” also. So your argument has somewhat circularised itself.

  • not sure why this conversation is all about crosses when there are numerous religious and belief symbols that people wear that should be covered by the rules when they are eventually clarified. What concerns me more are the people who wear a symbol just cos its a nice piece of jewelery, not believeing in it or sometimes even knowing what it represents… and don’t get me started on those who claim they are ‘Christian’ and are patently not…

  • Paul Walter 14th Apr '12 - 8:56pm

    @Peter That reminds me of the young girl who was overheard in a jewellers asking for a cross on a chain: “but it must be one with the little man on it”.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Apr '12 - 11:31am

    Mark: “If people believe something that is wrong, correcting them isn’t an irrelevance, rather it’s a sensible thing to do.”

    Of course it is – but to focus on that narrow and easily-dismissed point, to the virtual exclusion of the legitimate issues, is a diversion. Lynne could have dealt with that in a paragraph or two and then moved on to the real concerns that people have. She’s focussing heavily on this “government wants to ban crosses” idea – which we all know is a canard – because it’s easy.

    To give a specific example, one of the things that is upsetting people most (including Chaplin herself – see http://www.notashamedofthecross.org.uk/story ) is the fact that the submission dismisses the idea that wearing the cross is a recognised part of Christian observance. I would like to have seen Lynne clarify the government’s position on this, but she doesn’t say a single word about it.

    Paul: “Cameron is pandering, to a large extent, to people who do indeed think the government wants to ban crosses at work.”

    Any evidence for that, other than Lynne Featherstone’s chance meeting with a constituent?

  • Rebecca Hanson 15th Apr '12 - 11:40am

    I agree with Peter.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Apr '12 - 1:11pm

    Peter: “not sure why this conversation is all about crosses when there are numerous religious and belief symbols that people wear that should be covered by the rules when they are eventually clarified.”

    This conversation is all about crosses because it concerns two cases before the ECHR which are specifically to do with crosses.

    Also, the courts (and the government submission) have stated that the wearing of a cross is not a recognised form of Christian observance. To my knowledge they have not said that about any other type of religious symbol (and would not be expected to since these cases are about crosses).

    That’s why this conversation is specifically about crosses. I agree with you that clarifiction of the rules, and how they would apply to all forms of religious symbol, is what is needed.

  • Paul Walter 15th Apr '12 - 1:30pm

    Stuart, of course I accept that some see wearing a visible crucifix, even if it is against their employer’s policy, as an essential part of the Christian faith (and I accept that there should be a test of reasonableness for the employer’s policy and welcome the submissions to the ECHR to clarify this). I just think they are not supported by any biblical reference or any of the teachings of Jesus or St Paul or indeed anything other than a minority body of opinion in the Church of England ( I can’t speak for other denominations and I note that Nadia Eweida is a Coptic Christian). I think three bishops have put their name to a petition/motion about this. George Carey was and is something of an amiable aberration. And I do not understand what I perceive to be the paranoia of the Christian Legal Centre. Against them we have the Archbishop of Canterbury saying in uncharacteristically uncoded language:

    “…the cross itself has become a religious decoration – not a call to renewal of life, not a call into a new world, but another thing that religious people make and hang onto.”

    So, if the government is saying there is no Christian religious imperative to wear a visible crucifix in defiance of reasonable employer policy, then I wholeheartedly agree with them. Call that illiberal if you want. Call it government meddling if you want. But it is just ridiculous to suggest that Christians need to show off their crucifix in the workplace even if it is against a reasonable, lawful policy of their employer. Simply ridiculous – and against all the teachings of quiet, unassuming discipleship.

    I am getting very tired of the rather paranoid reaction of a couple of retired bishops/retired Archbishop, Christian Concern/Christian Legal Centre and Anglican Mainstream. The Church of England is the established church with vast wealth, bishops by default in the second chamber (unlike virtually any other country in the world) and its head is the Head of State. To complain that we are under attack (as they do, and these two cases form a key part of their armoury) is just ludicrous.

  • Stuart Mitchell 16th Apr '12 - 7:12pm

    @Paul
    I agree with many of your points.
    * There is no Biblical compulsion to wear a cross.
    * The government’s position does not amount to a wholesale attack on Christianity, and should not be painted as such.
    * There are circumstances in which an employer might reasonably ban crosses, e.g. on genuine health and safety grounds, and this ought to be lawful. Any “right” to wear a cross should not take priority over other laws.

    However…

    Arguing that a religious practise should only be recognised as such if it is compulsory sets the bar way too high. Few practises, in any religion, would pass that test. (One of the arguments being put forward by Eweida and Chaplin at the ECHR is that Article 9 does not insist on compulsion.)

    Christianity does not stick slavishly to a Biblical rule book. If it did, then churches would have a sign on the door saying “Menstruating Women Not Permitted”. Religions adapt over time just like any other human institution. Methods of observance are defined by a combination of tradition, culture, and personal choice as well as adherence to a text.

    I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen. Employers should be required by law to allow their employees to wear crosses if they want to, unless there is a compelling reason (such as a proven health and safety issue) why they should not. I would not consider a mere uniform policy to be a compelling reason. (Of course this would apply equally to all religious symbols, it just so happens that we are talking specifically here about crosses.)

    I know what you’re thinking… Isn’t that pretty much what Lynne Featherstone assures us we already have??

    The problem is that Featherstone’s assurances are at odds with decisions given by the courts, and with her own submission to the ECHR. If, as the judges and government maintain, the wearing of a cross is not even a form of religious expression, then how exactly is the right to wear a cross supposed to be protected by laws guaranteeing freedom of religious expression? By what means would a cross-banning employer be forced to give a compelling reason? She seems to be saying, vaguely, that the right to wear a cross might be protected by the Equality Act. But as far as I am aware the EA has not been tested in this way; and as already mentioned, the judges in the Eweida case expressed an opinion that the right to wear a cross is no more protected by the Equality Act than it was by the earlier legislation.

    This needs clearing up. However “ludicrous” the wearing of religious symbols may seem to you – and I actually agree with you on that point – it is nevertheless deeply significant to some, and as long as they are not harming anybody else, we should have just as much respect for their rights as for anybody else.

  • Paul Walter 16th Apr '12 - 8:17pm

    I tend to agree with most of your points Stuart and it will be interesting to see what comes out of the ECHR on the cases.

    “However “ludicrous” the wearing of religious symbols may seem to you…”

    Just for clarity, the wearing of religious symbols does not seem ludicrous to me. I didn’t write that. I fully support people’s right to generally wear whatever symbols, including religious ones, they like and wear whatever clothes they like. Indeed, I carry a palm crucifix in my pocket often. My use of the word “ludicrous” was to describe the complaint that “we (Christians) are under attack”.

    Perhaps you were confusing my later use of the word “ludicrous” with my earlier use of the word “ridiculous” – but my use of the word “ridiculous” was specifically describing the suggestion “that Christians need to show off their crucifix in the workplace even if it is against a reasonable, lawful policy of their employer.”

    One of the interesting things about these two cases is that they both seem to involve, at some stage or the other, changes in policy, or at least the implementation of policy, by the two employers.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '12 - 4:28pm

    There is no Biblical compulsion to wear a cross, but then there is no Quranic compulsion to cover your hair if you are female, the words interpreted as that are just a vague request to dress in a way that does not draw attention.

    It should be noted that writing of this in terms of “Biblical compulsion” is to take a Protestant view of Christianity. Catholic Christianity does not take this “Bible as rule book” approach (which is a ludicrous approach anyway, the Bible is not a rule book and was not intended to be a rule book).

    The issue is that some Christians have taken to this because they want a visible sign that they are Christians – which I think is also the case with head-covering for female Muslims. In the western world this was not an issue until recently because until recently it was assumed everyone was a Christian. I think there is a valid case that if Muslims demand and get the right to exhibit a visible sign of their religion it is discriminatory not to allow the same to Christians, regardless of whether it is a requirement of the religion. This is why the British Airways original position in the Eweida case was offensive – the wearing of the cross in this case was not equivalent to simply wearing a piece of jewelry.

    I had missed until now the fact that Eweida was a Coptic Christian. She may therefore have a particular wish to indicate that she is a Christian having an ethnicity which would lead people to believe she is Muslim. My wife wears a a cross in part for similar reasons – because she is of an appearance which would lead people to believe she is a Muslim or Hindu, and she prefers to have a way of quietly indicating this is not the case.

  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Apr '12 - 5:19pm

    @Paul Walter
    “Perhaps you were confusing my later use of the word ‘ludicrous’ with my earlier use of the word ‘ridiculous'”

    Very likely. Many apologies for that. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

  • Paul Walter 22nd Apr '12 - 2:28pm

    The irony of all this is that hundreds of thousands of priests don’t even wear a crucifix at work. Many don’t even wear a dog collar when they are working.

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