Written by Paul Coleman, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom at its office in Vienna, Austria.
Religious Liberty is in peril worldwide. This blog post, the third in a series of commentaries, illustrates the increasing marginalization of Christianity in Europe. The remaining commentaries will be published over the course of the next few weeks.
Christianity is being kept out of the workplace. Four high-profile cases from the United Kingdom are currently making their way through the European Court of Human Rights.
Two of the claimants, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele, were fired for refusing to condone same-sex relationships. Ladele was a registrar of births, deaths, and marriages. When same-sex civil partnerships were introduced by the government in 2005, she saw that registering such relationships would clash with her faith. There were many registrars in the registry service and the same-sex ceremonies constituted a fraction of her duties, making the accommodation of her beliefs on marriage easy to achieve.
She was bullied and harassed by her colleagues, who accused her of “homophobia,” and her supervisor disclosed details of her case to other employees. The service ignored her concerns and the mistreatment she endured. In court, her supervisor summarized the employer’s position, stating, “I don’t believe that we should be accommodating people’s religious beliefs in the Registry Service.” Ultimately she was forced out of her job.
McFarlane worked as a relationship counselor for a charitable organization. He had previously raised concerns over providing counseling services to homosexual couples, as he thought it might imply endorsement of relationships he conscientiously believed to be wrong. However, after discussing the issue with his supervisor he decided that simply counseling such couples did not involve endorsement.
He did, however, raise objections to counseling homosexual couples suffering only from sexual dysfunction. In October 2007, he “confirmed he had difficulty in dealing with same-sex sexual practices and fulfilling his duty to follow the teaching of the Bible.”
Although he never turned away clients, merely raising the question with his supervisor ultimately led to his dismissal for gross misconduct. Suggestions of ways to accommodate him, such as an internal referral system, were dismissed by the court, which stated that his employer was “entitled to treat the issue as one of principle, in which compromise is inappropriate.”
The other two claimants, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, were seeking the right to continue wearing a small visible cross in the workplace, something they had both done for years. In Eweida’s case, British Airways introduced a new uniform policy that only permitted employers to wear non-uniform items for “mandatory religious reasons.” After a public backlash against the airline, it amended the policy but refused to reimburse Eweida for the wages she lost for the time she was sent home without pay for refusing to hide her cross.
Chaplin’s employer, a state hospital, changed the nurses’ uniform by introducing a V-neck tunic, making the wearing of a cross more overt. The employer cited “health and safety” reasons as justification for insisting that she remove the cross, but never provided evidence to suggest what exactly the health and safety issues were.
In January, the European Court found in favor of Eweida, holding that the airline did not have a good reason to limit her right to freedom of religion. However, the court dismissed the cases of the other three claimants, accepting that “health and safety” in the case of Chaplin and “providing a service without discrimination” in the cases of Ladele and McFarlane were legitimate reasons for limiting their freedom of religion. Their cases are now being appealed to the Grand Chamber of the Court.
Similar battles between religious believers and their employers are being fought all over Europe. Doctors in Norway face pressure to participate in abortion procedures against their consciences. As Norwegian health minister Robin Kåss recently explained, “If you deny a patient contraception or a referral for an abortion, you can’t be a general physician. Doctors have to be ready to do their duty.”
The same is true in Sweden, where the Swedish parliament voted 271 to 20 to condemn a resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that supported the right of conscientious objection for physicians. It noted that the resolution “implies that health care workers should have the possibility to choose not to perform abortions” and stated that the standing committee rejected the resolution and instructed the Swedish delegation to work to change it. The situation is so bad in Sweden that a collective complaint has been launched against Sweden with the European Committee of Social Rights.
In Scotland, two Catholic midwives have taken their hospital employers to court after their manager insisted that they supervise abortion procedures against their will. The court held that the statutory conscience clause for health care providers in the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply to midwives. Their case is now on appeal.
The increasing marginalization of the Church throughout the world should be concerning to all Christians. We must stand firm against the subtle, and not so subtle, attacks on our faith. If you, or your church, experience censorship, punishment, or unlawful regulation for speaking, acting, or ministering in accordance with Biblical principles, please contact Alliance Defending Freedom. Perhaps we can provide the legal assistance you need to live out your faith and keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel.
This column originally appeared in The Washington Examiner on Feb. 15, 2013