European Court Crucifix case draws “bright line” between religious freedom and discrimination says ICCL

Press release, for immediate release

Dublin, Tuesday 15 January 2013


The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) today (15 January 2013) has drawn a “bright line” between the protected right to freedom of religious expression, and the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of conscience.

In today’s judgment in the case of Eweida and Others v the United Kingdom, the ECtHR examined four separate cases all concerning allegations that employers had violated employees’ religious freedom (protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights).

The Court found in favour of British Airways worker Ms Nadia Eweida, who fell foul of a workplace regulation prohibiting the wearing of religious jewellery. The Court ruled this prohibition was a violation of Ms Eweida’s right to religious freedom, given that “there [was] no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of others (para. 95).”

However, crucially, the Court refused to find a violation in the case of two applicants, a civil registrar and a relationship councillor, who were dismissed after refusing to provide their services to same-sex couples, in violation of their employers’ equality and ethical policies.

Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) Director Mr. Mark Kelly today noted:

“This is a very important case, in which the Strasbourg Court has gone out of its way to mark the limits of protection of freedom of religion under the Convention. The Court has quite correctly upheld the fundamental right of all people to express and manifest their faith in the public sphere. This right can only be restricted where there is a reasonable justification, and only by proportionate means.”

“However, the Court has drawn a bright line between this right to religious expression and attempts to use conscience or religion to justify discrimination. The State has a legitimate aim, indeed an obligation, to provide and facilitate equal access to services. As such, it is well within its rights to prohibit the withholding of services to same-sex couples, even if this is purportedly on the grounds of conscience or sincerely held religious belief”.

“Individual conscience or religious belief, however sincerely held, does not provide a free pass from the requirements of anti-discrimination law”, Mr Kelly concluded.

Mark Kelly is available for further comment.

For further information contact:

Walter Jayawardene
Communications Manager
Irish Council for Civil Liberties
9-13 Blackhall Place
Dublin 7
Ireland

Tel. + 353 1 799 4503
Mob: +353 87 9981574   
Fax. + 353 1 799 4512
 
E-mail  walter.jayawardene@iccl.ie
Web     www.iccl.ie

Note to editors:

The full European Court of Human Rights judgment in the CASE OF EWEIDA AND OTHERS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM (Applications nos. 48420/10, 59842/10, 51671/10 and 36516/10)
, is available at http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/pages/search.aspx?i=001-115881
 
A brief summary of the four applicants’ cases:

The first two applicants’ cases concerned the wearing of a cross and chain in the workplace (an airline, and a hospital, respectively).


The Court found in favour of the first applicant (Ms Eweida), ruling that the prohibition on wearing a cross and chain in the course of her duties at British Airways constituted a breach of her religious freedom, given that “there [was] no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of others (para. 95).”

In the case of the second applicant (Chaplin), the Court found that, though wearing the cross and chain was a legitimate manifestation of religious belief, in this case the workplace restriction was legitimate, given that she worked in a hospital ward where such apparel was generally prohibited for health and safety reasons, and to avoid cross-contamination.

The second two applicants’ cases concerned the provision of services to same-sex couples.

Following the introduction of Civil Partnership in the UK, the third applicant Ms Ladele, a civil registrar at the London Borough of Islington, refused to be designated a registrar of civil partnerships. This refusal was in direct violation of the Borough’s ‘Dignity for All’ policy, which committed the Borough and its staff to provide services to all members of the community, irrespective of age, gender, disability, faith, race, nationality, sexuality, health or income. Ms Ladele’s refusal culminated in the loss of her job. The Court found, however, that the Borough acted in a legitimate manner in applying a policy of equal opportunities, aimed at “securing the rights of others”, and that obliging Ms Ladele to comply with this policy was both legitimate and proportionate.

The fourth applicant Mr McFarlane was employed as a councillor in a private sex therapy and relationship counselling service, a member of the British Association for Sexual and Relationship Therapy (BASRT). In violation of the service’s equal opportunity policy, and the BASRT’s Code of Ethics, Mr McFarlane refused to commit himself to providing psycho-sexual counselling to same-sex couples, despite being aware that the company had a policy of not filtering clients. This refusal culminated in the applicant’s dismissal. The Court, as in the third applicant’s case, rejected the applicant’s claim of religious discrimination, deeming as legitimate the employer’s policy of providing counselling services without discrimination.


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