Britain’s Religious Freedom in the Hands of the European Court of Human Rights

on August 16, 2012

In just a few weeks on September 4th, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will hear arguments for four cases regarding discrimination against Christians in the United Kingdom. Over the past several years, Christians in the UK have faced an alarming growth of intolerance whenever their faith collides with the “public interest.” A recent report entitled Clearing the Ground put out by a committee of Christian Members of Parliament (MPs) and peers found that freedom for Christians has significantly diminished due largely to the Equality Act of 2010 and the Public Order Act.

The committee emphasized that Christians in the UK are not persecuted, but some have experienced some constriction of freedom, particularly in the workplace. Two cases to be heard by the ECHR arose because the plaintiffs wore small cross necklaces in the workplace. In one case, Nadia Eweida was told by her employer, British Airways to remove or conceal her necklace or be dismissed without pay. She refused to comply, and was consequently dismissed for several months until the airline reversed its policy on displaying religious symbols. After the policy reversal, Ms. Eweida went back to work, but British Airways refused to compensate her for lost earnings. British courts have ruled against Ms. Eweida, and her case will be heard by the ECHR in September.

Another case involves a Christian man named Gary McFarlane who works as a counselor. When he expressed hesitation about providing counseling for same-sex couples, his employer told him he would violate the counseling center’s “Equal Opportunity Policies” if he refused to work with such couples. Mr. McFarlane was let go, and has since pursued legal action without success.

Other reported incidents include bed and breakfast owners who denied a shared room to a homosexual couple, a shop owner who displayed a publicly visible Bible passage that was deemed offensive to gay people, a registrar who conscientiously objected to facilitating a same-sex civil union, among others.

If the ECHR rules in favor of the Christians, it could mean Britain’s Equality Act and other “diversity legislation” are overturned or altered significantly, allowing Christians to live according to their faith in the public sphere. The ECHR is certainly no bastion of Christian moral virtue, but last year it did protect the practice of displaying crosses in Italian public schools.

These cases are unique, but generally representative of the loss of freedom Christians are experiencing in the UK. Clearing the Ground speculates that much of the discrimination is due to public illiteracy about Christianity. The committee writes: “[I]n a society that does not adequately understand the nature of Christian belief, legal difficulties will inevitably arise because of the non-mandatory nature of Christian activity.” Because some religions, such as Islam or Judaism require adherents to wear certain clothing or symbols and the Christian faith allows for more variation, often allowances are not made for Christians where they would be for others. Religious illiteracy is undoubtedly partly to blame, but that explanation seems a bit too charitable.

The Equality Act of 2010 consolidated all of Great Britain’s anti-discrimination laws, and added more protected demographic categories, including sexual orientation. The report states: “Critically, early indications from court judgments are that sexual orientation takes precedence and religious belief is required to adapt in the light of this.”

Britain’s Orwellian “Equality and Human Rights Commission” has been involved in many of these religious liberty cases. The EHRC claims to “promote and monitor human rights; and to protect, enforce and promote equality across the nine ‘protected’ grounds – age, disability, gender, race, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and gender reassignment.”

The EHRC’s slogan is “Creating a fairer Britain,” and in a recent report on public acceptance of homosexuality, they stated one of their goals is to “Encourage debate on relationships between sexual orientation and religion and how perceived tensions can be resolved in everyday life.” The agenda to establish absolute fairness and equality is doomed to fail. Although the EHRC claims to protect religious belief equally, often Christian beliefs are only recognized as valid when they are kept private.

The trend in Britain, the US, and elsewhere across the Western world shows that contrary to the purported goal, everyone’s beliefs, opinions, and lifestyles will not be tolerated. Instead, Christian teachings on sexual ethics and other issues are classified as “discriminatory,” ultimately resulting in a sad irony where Christians lose their jobs and are taken to court for simply living by the faith that established “human rights” in the first place.

  1. Comment by Frank Cranmer (@FCranmer) on August 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    “[T]he faith that established ‘human rights’ in the first place”. Really? What about (eg) “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh”: 1 Peter 2:18? What about the people on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide who were killed during the Reformation because their religion was different from that of their rulers? What about the attempts by the Stuarts to reimpose episcopacy in Scotland that led to the “killing times” and the persecution of the Covenanters? What about the attempts by the Confederacy during the American Civil War to justify slavery on the grounds that it had Biblical warrant?

    Historically, “religious freedom” has not been an untrammelled human right: until fairly recently it’s been the freedom to practise the religion that the authorities were prepared to support or tolerate.

    If what you are saying is that Christians in the 21st century support human rights, all well and good (though don’t forget the support given by the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk to the apartheid regime in South Africa). But if you are asserting that, historically, “human rights” stem from Christian roots, the evidence is overwhelmingly against you.

    And no, I’m not a militant member of the National Secular Society – I’m a Quaker.

  2. Comment by kirkion on August 16, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Where did human rights come from?
    I mean historically the idea of human rights came from and was imposed (politely perhaps but nevertheless imposed) by the dominant Western powers.

    Also those powers have a Judeo-Christian heritage.

    Therefore, I suppose you must be aware of some philosophical tradition, or idea which emerged or diverged from the Judeo-Christian heritage of those Western powers and that from this separate and distinct philosophical tradition were born human rights.

    I am not aware of any such tradition, but I do love the history of philosophy and would be glad to learn more about the development of human rights.

    Also, is the authentic practice of Christianity somehow incompatible with universal human rights? Is there some philosophical lack in authentic Christianity?

  3. Comment by Frank Cranmer (@FCranmer) on August 17, 2012 at 3:06 am

    I’m not convinced that “historically the idea of human rights came from and was imposed … by the dominant Western powers”. That may certainly have come to be true in the twentieth century (eg the European Convention and the UN Declaration); but looking much further back, when Tom Paine asserted “The Rights of Man” in 1791 he did so very much against the prevailing political orthodoxy. And Western Europe was sometimes remarkably slow to recognise what are now accepted without question as rights.
    For example, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a human right under Article 9 ECHR. The last major piece of toleration legislation in the UK was remarkably late: the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (and odds and ends of non-Toleration continued for even longer). In Sweden, the Conventicle Edict 1726 [konventikelplakat], which was primarily directed against Pietists and Swedenborgians, forbade worship in private groups: it was not repealed until 1858 by means of a Royal Decree and, even then, the terms of the repeal provided only for a very limited freedom of assembly for other denominations and under highly restrictive conditions.
    Moreover, though Western Europe certainly has a Judeo-Christian heritage that does not necessarily mean that “human rights” is embedded in that tradition. Jeremy Bentham certainly thought that they were religious in origin and dismissed “natural rights” as “nonsense on stilts”; if, however, I were looking for the religious roots of human rights I would look to Judaism, the Old Testament and the Talmud – for example, their prescriptions about how to treat the poor – rather than to the New.
    So I remain unconvinced. It is certainly true that Christianity in the modern era has embraced human rights with enthusiasm: see, for example, Gaudium et Spes. And so it should. But I remain of the opinion that, looked at in purely historical terms, Christianity has been either largely neutral about the human rights agenda or actively opposed to it. I repeat: whatever the situation may be nowadays, historically-speaking freedom of thought, conscience and religion has been the freedom to hold the religious opinions that the authorities will allow you to hold and none other. (If your surname is Cranmer you don’t easily forget the Oxford Martyrs!)

  4. Comment by kirkion on August 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm


    I’m not saying that Christians haven’t carried out what we would consider human rights abuses today. I’m saying that human rights as we understand them today were written up and made the standard for international discourse by nations which possessed a Christian Heritage, namely the US, Britain and their post WWII allies.

    One of the great protests of the Muslim nations has been that what are called “universal human rights” by the West are in fact Christian based and not religiously neutral at all. You may of course disagree with their perspective, but enough highly placed Muslims felt strongly enough about the matter to create the Cairo Declaration as a Muslim alternative.

    So my question to you is, if Christianity did not give rise to human rights what did? What philosophical movement created them, and how would you definitely distinguish it from Christianity?

    I think in your recitation of the evils done by Christians to other Christians, that you forget that these were also men, doing what men have doing in every time and place, and in the name of every God, or in the case of the World Wars in the name of no God at all. Human beings did those evils and the question is, did authentic Christian faith support them in these evils or did authentic Christian faith ultimately give rise to the principles of freedom known as human rights?

    I have heard others make a case for different post-Christian Western philosophies as the true origin of human rights. Your statement presumes some kind of alternative, so I want to know, what is it?

    If development of human rights as a coherent body was not the end result of thousands of years of struggle between authentic Christian faith and the evil in men, then what was the key point. Was it Locke? Rousseau? Marx? (Its always fun when someone makes a case for socialism as the turning point).

    Was it some kind of more general secular humanism?

    I am not contesting that the evils you cite happened, but if you want to criticize Christianity, I think there are more serious criticisms of Christianity than that it misused political power. (Once again the key point in that equation is “men who misuse political power” so the greatest criticism that really shows is that some men who claim to be Christian are just as evil as other men.)

    Again, do you have any viable alternative to Christianity as the philosophical origin of human rights? I hope you see that if you don’t it makes your position seem almost …specious.

  5. Comment by Jo on August 21, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Amen, kirkion!

  6. Comment by Frank Cranmer (@FCranmer) on December 7, 2012 at 6:57 am

    Whether or not “the authentic practice of Christianity [is] somehow incompatible with universal human rights” or “there [is] some philosophical lack in authentic Christianity” I’m not qualified to comment on: you’d have to ask an orthodox Trinitarian Christian – not a Unitarian/Universalist Quaker like me.

    But I think that the short answer to the question, “Where did human rights come from?” is, “From the Enlightenment”: Tom Paine and his associates and followers.

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