Cameron said he would legislate to protect religious rights at work: so why did his lawyers in Strasbourg this week deny the existence of these rights?

'The kind of liberal conservatism David Cameron espouses is a mishmash of the good and bad, and is completely divorced from Christian spirituality' (PA)

The mills of European justice grind exceeding slow, in Strasbourg at least; but the by now well-known test cases of four Christians whose rights freely to practise the Christian religion are being challenged by this government (three of them have actually lost their jobs for sticking by their faith) have now been heard, together, by the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg. Judgment will be handed down at a later date; how much later remains to be seen; this could go on for some time.

Let there be no doubt about what is going on; forget what Cameron has said about backing the rights of Christians, and legislating to protect them (yet another promise which has not been and probably will not be kept). The British government has actually argued in this case, through its lawyers (who were presumably arguing what they were told to argue) that Christians should leave their beliefs at home or get another job if their employers don’t like them.

Christians should accept, government lawyers have actually pronounced in open court, that a personal expression of faith at work, such as wearing a cross, means they might have to resign and get another job: there was, they argued, a “difference between the professional and private sphere. That simply means that the government says that Christians may not fully practice their faith at all (since we believe that there should never be any such separation, that there is no moment of our lives to which our faith is not relevant). This, these expensive QCs argued on the government’s behalf, despite Cameron’s promise that he would change the law “to protect religious expression at work”.

This is what, according to the Telegraph, his lawyers (I repeat, his lawyers) said. James Eadie QC, told the court that the refusal to allow an NHS nurse and a British Airways worker to visibly wear a crucifix at work “did not prevent either of them practising religion in private”, which would be protected by human rights law. He argued that a Christian facing problems at work with religious expression needed to consider their position and that they were not discriminated against if they still have the choice of leaving their job and finding new employment (my italics).

“There are,” he went on, “two aspects to this part of the argument. Firstly, resigning and moving to another job and secondly (actually, not secondly at all, he’s simply repeating the same argument because he has no other) there is clear and consistent jurisprudence that the person who asserts religious rights may on occasion have to take account of their position”.

“There is a difference,” he went on, “between the professional sphere where your religious freedoms necessarily abut on to and confront other interests and the private sphere. The employees concerned could indeed pursue all the generally recognised manifestations of their religion outside the work sphere.”

He then went on to expound a familiar argument, one that always intensely irritates me because of its total ignorance of how religion actually functions. The argument is that it doesn’t say in the Bible that women should wear a cross at work (duh!!) so it’s not required by their religion. Unlike the Muslim headscarf for women (actually, he’s wrong about that too), wearing a cross is not a “generally recognised” act of Christian worship and is not required by scripture. “A great many Christians do not insist on wearing crosses at all, still less visibly,” he said. So? A great many Muslim women don’t insist on wearing a hijab, either. As for “required by scripture”, there are whole areas of Christian moral behaviour which isn’t in the nature of things actually specified in the biblical texts; that’s not how scripture works (not Christian scripture, anyhow). The Bible isn’t, as someone once put it, “maker’s instructions”. The depressing things about this man’s legal arguments is their utter superficiality, the way in which they simply miss the whole point, not just about Christianity but about any religion.

Consider some of the injustices the court considered on Tuesday.

Shirley Chaplin was moved away from nursing to a clerical role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after refusing to remove a necklace bearing a crucifix. She was subsequently fired, after 30 years of nursing. “It is insulting, humiliating and degrading,” she protests. “My Christian faith isn’t something that you put on and then take off to go to work”.

There is also the case of the Relate therapist who lost his job for saying, though not to his employer (who simply happened to hear of the conversation at third hand), that he might not be comfortable giving sex counselling to homosexuals. Gary McFarlane, a Bristol marriage counsellor, was sacked because his employer, who was already suspicious because of his open Christianity, learned that he had privately expressed his reluctance to give “sex therapy” to homosexual couples. Reluctance!! “Sex therapy”!! Ye Gods!! Of course he was reluctant.

Finally, there is the case of the Christian registrar who refuses to effect civil partnerships. Lillian Ladele, a registrar in Islington, was dismissed after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds. Dinah Rose, her QC, said the government’s argument that an employer could discriminate against someone because of their religious opinions as long as the employee was able to leave their job and find another one elsewhere was “startling”, and argued, surely unanswerably, that “an employer could have a policy of refusing to employ Jews because other employers will employ them”. Quite.

There has been support from some MPs for these people, but not enough. Most notably, David Davis (who seems for a politician to have been talking a great deal of common sense lately, mostly implicitly or explicitly critical of the Prime Minister) said he expected Mr Cameron to stick to his recent promises to protect religious rights. “The idea that British citizens are not free to express their faith in the workplace is an extraordinary and oppressive interpretation of the law,” he said. “The Prime Minister made it plain in the House of Commons that the Government believes the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace is a vital freedom. One therefore has to ask why the Government’s lawyers are the last to know.”

When this case had been raised in the Commons by Mr Davis in July, the Prime Minister was quite unambiguous in his support for the right to wear religious symbols at work. He said this: “I think it is an absolutely vital freedom“. He insisted that the Government would change the law if necessary to make sure employees can wear religious symbols at work. “What we will do,” he said, “is that if it turns out that the law has the intention of banning the display of religious symbols in the workplace, as has come out in this case, then we will change the law and make clear that people can wear religious symbols at work”. Note those words “what we will do”: so why doesn’t he do it? And why has he sent his laywers to Strasbourg, to oppose these four Christians rather than supporting them (or just staying out of the way)?

These are not rhetorical questions; I really would like an answer to them. There must be one. Did he mean what he said? If not, why say it, so clearly and unambiguously? He could easily have slithered out of any such commitment; Heaven knows, he’s done that often enough. Does anyone out there actually know the answer? Can anyone explain? Anyone? Me, I’m stumped.