Two UK women, forbidden by their employers from wearing the Christian cross, have brought their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The women will argue that their right to manifest their religious views, as expressed in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, was infringed upon when their employer refused to allow them to wear the cross at work.
Article 9 reads as follows:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
The ministers representing the UK government’s side will argue that displaying a cross is not a requirement of the Christian faith, and thus cannot be afforded legal protection under Article 9. The official response states:
The Government submit that… the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not a manifestation of their religion or belief within the meaning of Article 9, and…the restriction on the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not an ‘interference’ with their rights protected by Article 9…In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.
But this isn’t good enough, say the women. They claim that the government is setting the bar too high and that manifesting religion is not necessarily confined to “requirements of faith”. The Archbishop of Canterbury agreed, stating that “The [government’s] reasoning is based on a wholly inappropriate judgment of matters of theology and worship about which they can claim no expertise.”
Additionally, the two women claim that Christians are afforded less legal protection than Sikhs and Muslims.
However, it should be recognized that censorship of religious expression is a double-edged sword. Two days following the 9th anniversary of 9/11, the government of France voted to ban the Muslim hijab (a face veil worn by women) in public places. One year later, a similar law went into effect in Belgium.
France recently made headlines for detaining two women who refused to comply with what they felt to be a discriminatory law.
Laws banning Muslim religious expression sparked outrage in the Islamic community, but Christians were largely silent. One wonders what the two Christian plaintiffs from the UK think about the limitation of religious manifestation for Muslim women.
We could cite the famous words of pastor Martin Niemöller, but the point is simple: there’s either religious freedom for all, or there’s religious freedom for none.