Christians Should Be Free To Wear Religious Symbols Says Archbishop

Christians should be able to wear the symbols of their religion without being discriminated against, the Archbishop of York has said.

Reacting to the judgment from the European Court of Human Rights, Dr John Sentamu also said tribunals and courts should not have to rule on what symbols people could or could not wear.

But the National Secular Society (NSS) said "true religious freedom" was for employees who feel that parts of their job go against their conscience to find another role.

Sentamu said: "Whether people can wear a cross or pray with someone should not be something about which courts and tribunals have to rule."

Nadia Eweida has been continuously employed by BA for 13 years

Dr Sentamu said: "Christians are not obliged to wear a cross but should be free to show their love for and trust in Jesus Christ in this way if they so wish.

"In July 2012, the General Synod stated that it is the calling of Christians to order and govern their lives in accordance with the teaching of Holy Scripture and to manifest their faith in public life as well as in private.

"This means giving expression to their beliefs in the written and spoken word, and in practical acts of service to the local community and to the nation.

"The Equality Act 2010 encourages employers to embrace diversity - including people of faith. Whether people can wear a cross or pray with someone should not be something about which courts and tribunals have to rule."

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: "First and foremost, this ruling demonstrates that UK equality law is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and that there is no need to change UK law. Any attempt to do so by the government would therefore signal a clear desire to give privileged treatment to religious believers, and would be robustly challenged.

"In the cases of the registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships and the counsellor who wouldn't counsel gay couples - the principle of non-discrimination against gay people has been upheld. If they had won these cases, it would have driven a coach and horses through the equality laws. The rights of gay people to fair and equal treatment would have been kicked back by decades.

"It is always better if employers can reach some kind of accommodation with their staff on these issues, and in the vast majority of cases they do. But when employees refuse to carry out all the duties that their job entails, it is reasonable for employers to discipline them.

"Religious people who feel elements of their job go against their conscience can always find employment that better matches their needs. That is true religious freedom.

Responding to the ruling about Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane, Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, said: "Today's judgment rightly confirms that it's completely unacceptable in 2013 for public servants to pick and choose who they want to serve on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Gay people contribute over £40 billion to the cost of public services in this country. They're entitled to nothing less than equal treatment from those services, even from public servants who don't happen to like gay people."

Dave Landrum, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance, said the ruling showed a "hierarchy of rights" existed in British law.

Relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane, who would not counsel gay couples

"The failure of the court to protect the religious freedom of Lillian Ladele in living out her faith in a way consistent with historic Christian belief shows the limitations of this judgment," he added.

"We need solutions that will allow for the reasonable accommodation of the expressions of religious belief in all its diverse forms.

"If we want to create a society that is diverse and can live with its deepest differences there needs to be a fuller protection for religious beliefs, convictions and actions."

Dr Landrum added: "The court's recognition of Christian belief in everyday life is welcome, but in only finding in favour of Nadia Eweida, it has shown a hierarchy of rights now exists in UK law."

Religious think tank Theos said the judgments sent out the wrong message about the position of religious faith in Britain.

Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos, said the courts appeared to be erring on the side of limiting rather than accommodating religious freedom.

"It should not be beyond the wit of an employer to work with strongly-held religious commitments, rather than dismiss them," she said.

"However, what we are increasingly seeing is an unwillingness to accommodate them reasonably. These individual cases are complex, but the judgments matter because they will influence a larger conversation about the place of Christianity in the UK."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights organisation Liberty, said: "Today's judgment is an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense.

"Nadia Eweida wasn't hurting anyone and was perfectly capable of doing her job whilst wearing a small cross.

"She had just as much a right to express her faith as a Sikh man in a turban or a Muslim woman with a headscarf.

"British courts lost their way in her case and Strasbourg has actually acted more in keeping with our traditions of tolerance.

"Let's hope that some of those who threaten to pull out of the ECHR remember this case in the future. However the Court was also right to uphold judgments in other cases that employers can expect staff not to discriminate in the discharge of duties at work."

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), partially welcomed the judgment but said it left "a lot of scope for confusion".

It said the government should now look at the need to change the law to take the ruling into account.

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