UK

Christians Lose Right To Take Religious Discrimination Case To Highest European Court

28/05/2013 14:51 BST | Updated 28/05/2013 15:10 BST

Three British Christians who claimed their religious rights were violated by employers have been told by Europe's most senior judges that they could take their rejected cases no further.

Shirley Chaplin, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele saw their discrimination claims rejected by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg earlier this year.

The Christian Legal centre, which represents McFarlane and Chaplin, told HuffPost UK this "looks like the end of the road" for the cases.

gary mcfarlane

Nurse Shirley Chaplin (L) and marriage counsellor Gary McFarlane (R)

The claimants attempted to take their appeals to the Grand Chamber of the Court but the judges have rejected their request.

Chaplin was switched to a desk job after she refused to take off a crucifix which hung round her neck, while Ladele was disciplined by Islington council for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

McFarlane was dismissed from his role with the charity Relate after indicating he might have a conscientious objection to providing therapy to a same-sex couple.

After losing his last legal attempt, McFarlane told HuffPost UK the case was "way bigger than Gary McFarlane, way bigger even that Christianity. There are some significant issues that arise for all of us in multicultural Britain. I had no clue where this was going, I found myself in the limelight, and so I have to do the best I can."

Chaplin's claims were rejected on the grounds that the removal of her necklace was necessary to protect the health and safety of nurses and patients.

Appeals by Ladele and McFarlane were dismissed on the grounds that disciplinary proceedings against them were justified.

Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Centre, who represented two of the applicants, McFarlane and Chaplin, has previously indicated that her clients may now fight for a change in British equality law.

"This is a very disappointing day," she told HuffPost UK. "We expect to be very busy indeed in the coming months, because we foresee many, many more cases like these, especially if the government succeeds in redefining marriage. It means people of good conscience, like Gary and Shirley, are effectively excluded from the public sphere."

"Britain is seen as a bastion of equality but it is a fallacy, and people will realise this, and we will be known as a country which censors Christian views," she continued.

"It can lead to state oppression, punishment and persecution. Because we're British, we think that can't happen here but it can."

The ruling stated that both Islington council and Relate were bound by duties not to discriminate against their clients and meant they could not support staff who refused to work with homosexual couples.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "Fortunately, Europe's highest court has now wisely followed numerous lower courts and rejected the applicants' attempts for religious conscience to trump equality law.

"The UK has the world's most comprehensive equality laws which already include strong protection for religious believers and they would have been fatally compromised, particularly for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual) people had the Grand Chamber overturned any of these judgments.

"We hope that this will now draw a line under the attempts by a small coterie of Christian activists to obtain special privileges for themselves which would invariably come at the expense of other people's rights.

"The principle of equality for all, including for religious believers, is now established and they should stop wasting the time of the courts with these vexatious cases."

The cases were rejected in January as another case - involving British Airways worker Nadia Eweida - was upheld.

Eweida, a Coptic Christian, was sent home from work for displaying a small silver crucifix during her job as an airport check-in attendant for the airline.

The Strasbourg court ruled the decision to express her faith warranted protection under the European Convention on Human Rights and Eweida been discriminated against under freedom of religion laws.