So, Christians are free to wear a cross at work, but they're not necessarily free to believe in marriage. That's the upshot of the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on four cases of British Christians who claimed to have suffered discrimination. British Airways employee, Nadia Eweida, won the right to wear the cross at work - and that's what grabbed most of the media attention. But the court ruled against three other British Christians who also brought claims. Two of those involved Christians who had traditional beliefs about marriage.
I have been heavily involved in supporting one of those cases - that of Lillian Ladele - since the case first hit the headlines in 2006. So, I confess an interest, but it also means I know the case inside out. She is a Christian who believes that marriage is between a man and a woman. She could not, in all conscience, get involved in the registration of same-sex civil partnerships. Her bosses at Islington Borough Council had plenty of registrars to provide a civil partnership service to the public, but decided to force Lillian to choose between her faith or her career.
She took her employer to a tribunal, and won outright. The tribunal also decided that Lillian had been horribly bullied because of her traditional beliefs about marriage. But that decision was overturned on appeal. It remained that way all the way through the British court system. The case ended up at the European Court of Human Rights. This week, five European judges dismissed the claim but two judges thought Miss Ladele should have won. There may yet be an appeal to the Grand Chamber (yes, it really is called that) of the European Court. So it rumbles on.
With the UK government in an unseemly rush to redefine marriage, the European court ruling in the Ladele case is worrying. People who believe in traditional marriage are at risk of being left out in the cold. Employees, particularly teachers and others in the public sector, risk being kicked out of their profession unless they endorse same-sex marriage. All the concerns about how the redefinition of marriage will hit ordinary people are proving to be true.
A fresh legal opinion produced by Aidan O'Neill QC for the Coalition for Marriage group confirms that teachers could be sacked if they refuse to endorse gay marriage in the classroom. Public sector chaplains who work in the NHS, the armed forces, or in universities, could likewise be given the boot. Local councils could be within their rights to stop couples from fostering if they believe in traditional marriage. Churches could be banned from using village halls if they refuse to do gay weddings. These are the kind of injustices that are likely to hit ordinary life if marriage is redefined.
Yes, there are a variety of beliefs about marriage in society. Yes, there are people on all sides of the gay marriage debate. But should your beliefs about that issue result in you being pushed out of your job? Should your career be abruptly ended because you think marriage is only for men and women? Is that a tolerant society that is embracing the true meaning of 'diversity'? I don't think so.
I'm delighted for Nadia Eweida that she has won her case, and secured the right of Christians to wear a cross at work if they want to. But I'm deeply concerned that the European Court seems unwilling to defend the rights of employees to act according to their deeply-held beliefs about marriage.
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