People wearing crosses at work: what is the government doing?

Here’s the answer, courtesy of the official reply being sent to people who write to ministers on this topic:

Unfortunately, some recent media coverage has misrepresented the position with regard to the ability of employees to wear crosses, or other religious symbols, while at work.  The Government believes that people should be able to wear crosses openly at work. The law allows for this, and employers are generally very good at being reasonable in accommodating people’s religious beliefs.

There is no law stating what people can or cannot wear as this is considered a matter of personal choice.  The Equality Act 2010 maintains this position.  However, it is possible for employers to 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 a proportionate and legitimate reason for adopting it, for instance 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.

The Government believes that the Equality Act 2010 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.

With specific reference to the applications currently before the European Court of Human Rights, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as part of its liaison role with the Court, submitted the written observations of the Government on the admissibility and merits of those applications to the Court in October 2011.  These observations represent the Government’s legal position.

The applicants claim that domestic law has breached their human rights, a claim which the Government denies.  The Court will consider the applications in due course and the Government will consider its findings carefully when they are made.

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.  The Government is committed to ensuring fair treatment and equal opportunities for all, including people of all religions.

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18 Comments

  • Wow the media misrepresenting something, Never!

  • Yep, the only worrying thing regarding this issue is how easily untruths propagate, and just how little these newspapers care.

    Rick at Flip Chart Fairy Tales has an amusing take on this: http://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/red-tape-is-ok-for-christians-it-seems/

  • Stuart Mitchell 7th Apr '12 - 11:20am

    “The Government believes that people should be able to wear crosses openly at work.”

    But the government also believes that people should not have the RIGHT to wear crosses openly at work, which is the nub of this case.

    It may suit some to dismiss opposition to the government’s position as mischievous media misrepresentation, but it’s worth noting that the two ladies bringing these cases enjoy strong support from reputable civil liberties organisations such as Liberty and the Equality and Human RIghts Commission. It would be nice to see more politicians from all parties speaking up in their favour.

  • Simon McGrath 7th Apr '12 - 11:49am

    What an utterly mendacious statement. In fact the Government does not ” believes that people should be able to wear crosses openly at work” as they are actively opposing those who argue this at the European Court.

    Its quite simple – employers should not be able to ban employees (apart from on genuine H&S grounds) from wearing symbols of their religion. Just in the same way as ( entirely correctly) Sikhs a re allowed to bear turbans in the police and armed forces.
    Here’s what Liberty have to say about it

    http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/media/press/2010/overwhelming-support-as-case-of-ba-employee-banned-from-wearing-cross-is.php

  • Simon, would genuine H&S grounds include the NHS prohibiting front-line staff from wearing any type of necklace?

    I’m genuinely opposed to the wearing of suits, and ties in particular (I’m honestly not being facetious). Should I be free to wear what I like, or should my employer be free to control what I wear at work (and even the length of my hair)? H&S and pragmatic grounds are fine, but what about the supposed image projected to clients/customers? Are you saying employers shouldn’t be able to control that image (I’d like that!)? I could give some heart-felt moral reasons why I don’t support uniformity: could I take my employer to court and win if (s)he disagreed? What level of employee freedom is acceptable? How large can symbols be? Are my beliefs irrelevant unless they’re shared by an organised religion (of what size?)? I’m sure businesses will love exploring all these issues in the courts.

  • Paul Walter 7th Apr '12 - 4:40pm

    @Simon MacGrath So in the case of Shirley Chaplin her employers, the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust moved her from a front line role specifically for H&S reasons, which you cite as an exception.
    In the second case, BA have changed their policy anyway, so that crucifixes are allowed to be worn visibly. They did not sack Nadia Eweida. The court case to the ECHR, as I understand it, is about full payment during her suspension which was made under previous BA rules which did NOT ban the wearing of crucifixes but did not allow them to be worn visibly.
    The point is that there is nowhere in the bible which tells Christians to wear crucifixes visibly. Indeed, one could argue that Matthew 6:5 is suggesting a quiet, closeted approach to one’s faith.
    Indeed, on March 11th, Archbishop Williams said in Rome:
    “I believe that, during Lent, one of the tasks we all have to face is to look into ourselves and ask how far we are involved in the ‘religion factory’.  Because in spite of all this, Christians have been quite good at religion factories in their day, and 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. “

  • @Paul Walter
    Whilst I do not think you need to wear a cross to be a Christian I think you interpret Matthew wrongly. In this passage Jesus is referring to prayer, in other words you do not need to make a huge issue to the world of the fact you are praying. There is a similar passage about fasting later in Matthew 6 where those who choose to fast are instructed not to make their fast obvious to others. Prayer and fasting, where carried out as an individual, have no need for anyone’s involvement but the individual and God. If you need others to see, you are should question the reason you are doing either. …

    In my view (as a practising Christian) Christians should use their actions as an advert of their faith and not the cross or any other symbol. I have no objection to them being worn, I just do not see it as an intrinsic part of my faith. I spent many years in the armed forces where I would not be allowed (rightly) to wear a cross, indeed any jewellery except a wedding / engagement ring. I would however only ban their use where there is a good reason, and whilst it may upset some who share my faith, I include the requirement to wear uniform (and not just service uniforms) as a good reason.

    As ever when faith is debated the airtime and publicity goes to the minority rather than the mainstream.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Apr '12 - 6:41am

    Hilarious really that people are suddenly so concerned about the trouble this would give employers.
    @Rick – you seem to be under the impression that being a Nazi is a religion – it isnt.

  • Paul Walter 8th Apr '12 - 8:47am

    @Steve Way agreed

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Apr '12 - 12:50pm

    The Health and Safety argument is irrelevant in the Eweida case and nonsensical in the Chaplin one. A hijab is just as easy to grab as a chain (if not more so), but hijabs were not banned.

    I totally agree with Shami Chakrabarti’s comments on this case :-

    “Safety concerns about the wearing of crosses can easily be met with breakable chains but freedom of thought, conscience and religion should bind people of all faiths and none together. There are many who seek to create divisions in society and irrational bureaucracy plays into their hands.”

    By fighting these women, the government is making the job of the Mail as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

  • Paul Walter 8th Apr '12 - 11:20pm

    @Judith of course we should allow people to express their religious beliefs in the way they dress. Of course.

    But when someone enters into a contract of employment they agree to a set of rules which may or may not include legal rules about dress.

    There are indeed rules about rings in many hospitals. At Great Ormond Street hospital the rules state:

    “The wearing of rings and wrist jewellery (including watches) during health care is strongly discouraged. If religious or cultural influences strongly condition the health care worker’s attitude, the wearing of a simple wedding ring (band) during routine care may be acceptable, but in high-risk settings, such as the operating theatre, all rings and other jewellery should be removed (WHO 2009).”

    The rules also state:

    “Artificial fingernails or extenders should not be worn when having direct contact with patients (Rationale 14).”

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th Apr '12 - 4:30pm

    @Paul @Ian etc

    Can anybody quote a single case where a necklace worn by an air stewardess or nurse caused a health and safety problem – preferably one where the problem would not have been avoided with a short, breakable chain?

    In the absence of evidence to the contrary, surely the assumption should be that these women ought to have the right to wear their necklaces (as Shirley Chaplin did without incident for 30 years). Anything else would be, as Shami Chakrabarti put it, “irrational bureaucracy”.

    I always thought that Lib Dems were instinctively opposed to the government meddling in people’s lives in this way so I am genuinely perplexed that anybody is defending the government’s position on this.

  • Paul Walter 9th Apr '12 - 8:04pm

    The BA case is not about health and safety. It’s not about the right to wear the cross at work either, since BA have changed their policy and allow visible religious symbols. It’ s a dispute about payment during suspension when the dress policy allowed crosses but not visible ones.
    The Devon/Exeter case is about health and safety. The rules of that hospital are very similar to those for other hospitals.
    The government isn’t defending these cases. So it’s a bit of a stretch to say this is an example of them meddling in people’s lives.
    The bald legal facts of the cases are here: http://bit.ly/HAkzqs
    Instinctively I wish these two ladies all the best with their cases. It is good that these cases are being heard at the ECHR.

  • Stuart Mitchell 10th Apr '12 - 11:28am

    @Paul Walter “Instinctively I wish these two ladies all the best with their cases.”

    Well on that sentiment we can certainly agree. The Devon case is particularly sad.

    Devon & Exeter are arguing that it is an H&S issue but of course Ms Chaplin contests that and claims that she is the victim of blatant discrimination since Muslim staff are allowed to wear the hijab. Unless one can demonstrate that a hijab is less “grabbable” than a chain (which doesn’t seem plausible) then the argument ceases to be one of H&S and instead becomes one of whether a hijab is a manifestation of a religion while a cross is not (the latter of which seems to be a central part of the government submission). But here again it is easy to see why some see this as discrimination, since many Muslim women do not wear the hijab (and many scholars will tell you that it is not compulsory), and anway this is a matter of personal conscience. It was a strong enough part of Shirley Chaplin’s faith that she felt unable to continue in the job she had loved doing for 30 years, no dout at great financial loss to herself.

    As an aside, quite by chance last night I came across a photo of my wife in her nurse’s uniform circa 1997 (she left nursing a few years ago). Not only was she wearing a necklace and wedding ring, but she had a fob watch dangling from her front, and worst of all a pair of scissors sticking out of her breast pocket. It’s a wonder they let her anywhere near the wards – she was clearly a health and safety catastrophe just waiting to happen.

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