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A cross to bear

UK women go to European Court over their decision to wear crosses to work

Issue: "Who will vote?," April 21, 2012

British employers have instructed two Christians, one a nurse, the other a British Airways employee, to cease wearing crosses at work-and their decisions have been upheld by employment tribunals and British jurists. As a result, these cases are going to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The prohibition of crosses is a concrete illustration of the rapid increase in secularization taking place in the United Kingdom. A generation ago, the most influential judges in the English bar were serious Christians, but in recent years the British judiciary has curtailed Christian manifestations of belief and practice in case after case.

Examples include an English high court judge's refusal to allow the appeal of a Christian therapist fired for refusing to provide sex counseling to same-sex couples. The judge said that a viewpoint dependent on religious convictions was irrational and therefore could not provide a valid legal argument.

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Such anti-Christian positions seem especially ironic in a country where there is no separation of church and state-a country with an established church ("the Reformed branch of the Holy Catholic Church established in this Kingdom," or the Church of England), with the queen as its head.

The UK government's opposition to the wearing of Christian symbols is part of the endemic fear of giving offense. That contrasts with the U.S. approach, which expects the populace to be mature enough to tolerate speech or symbols even when they contradict or threaten one's personal beliefs.

Some conservatives have argued that the legal difficulties now encountered by Christians come from the UK's incorporation into national legislation of the European Convention of Human Rights. Critics object that under it the UK has become "rights conscious," with standards of equality leading easily to religious indifferentism, the belief that religious differences are of no importance. And yet, Article 9 of the Convention enshrines the rights to freedom of religious belief and practice, even protecting the right to change one's religion (and thus the right to evangelize).

The European human-rights system arose, as did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in reaction against the Nazi inhumanities committed during the Second World War. All European nations-and Eastern European countries wanting to join the European Union-subscribe to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

Its "right of individual petition" means that anyone on the soil of a ratifying country can bring a case to Strasbourg, the capital of France's Alsace region where the European Parliament is headquartered. Such cases may be brought against any member country for violation of the civil liberties protected by the Convention-as long as "domestic remedies have been exhausted" (i.e., after getting no satisfaction within the national legal system).

I myself have won four religious liberties cases at the Strasbourg Court against European nations attempting to restrict those rights: In Greece, which tried to criminalize as "proselytism" legitimate evangelism by Pentecostal air force officers; and in Moldova, where a government led by former Marxists refused to recognize an Orthodox church body simply because it fell under the aegis of the Romanian, rather than the Moscow, patriarchate.

The UK government takes the position that wearing a cross is not "required" by any Christian church, so prohibiting it is not violating the religious freedom of the believer. But last year the European Court in plenary session ruled that crucifixes could remain on the walls of public school classrooms in Italy-and the European Convention's protection of the freedom to manifest one's religion is surely not limited just to what a given religion "requires" of its adherents. Although no Christian is thrown out of his denomination because he isn't engaged in evangelism, the ECHR nonetheless protects the believer's right to evangelize.

Civil libertarians-and serious religious believers-should see the Court as a friend, not an enemy, particularly at a time when nation states seem to be moving in the direction of secularism and political correctness.

-English barrister John Warwick Montgomery serves as Distinguished Professor at Patrick Henry College and is the author of more than 50 books, including Human Rights and Human Dignity (ciltpp.com)

John Warwick Montgomery
John Warwick Montgomery

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