Law and Religion: Walking a Tightrope

The Law and Religion are closely intertwined in many countries, including the United Kingdom. Many criminal offences owe their origins to religious principles such as murder and theft. In fact they used to be one and the same when you look at blasphemy and anti-homosexuality laws. The position now has shifted in a number of countries for the better. In the UK and other traditionally Christian nations such as the US and Australia the law now regulates and controls religion. In the UK the Human Rights Act guarantees every person the right to believe and practice any religion they choose. However the relationship is still rather controversial at times, like a child that has grown up and moved out of its parents house only to try and tell their parents what they can and can’t do there are many arguments to be had. Especially when religious practices impact on other people.

Recently the European Court of Human Rights decided several cases at once that all had a central issue at heart. What are employee’s rights to display and practice their religion in the work place? The case was called Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom (insert link). Many of you may remember this as the case in which a BA check-in attendant won the right to wear a cross around her neck at work. There were in fact three other Christian workers who had their claim dismissed at the same time the BA check in attendant was successful.

We have a Geriatric Nurse who like Eweida (the check in attendant) wanted to wear a cross at work. However the court found a distinction in this case as the reason she was asked to remove the cross was for health and safety reason. There are obvious hygiene reasons here, which applied, but there is also a risk to the Nurse herself. Think about a violent patient who sees this cross, they may decide to grab it and serious injuries could be caused.

The other two were actually dismissed by their employers; one was a registrar and the other a relationship councilor. Both refused to perform their jobs with homosexual couples because of their religious beliefs. In this type of scenario you have to feel for the employers as they are put in a very difficult position. On the one hand they have a duty to provide a service to the general public regardless of sexuality, race and other protected categories. On the other the employer has a duty not to discriminate against their employees. My attitude, as someone who helps provide a charitable service to the public and hope to become a barrister one day is that you follow the ‘cab rank rule’. It’s a principle used by barristers to say that you must help someone regardless of their beliefs, actions or your personal feelings. Much like a taxicab. My feeling is if you provide a service to the public your personal feelings have to go to one side.

This case neatly illustrates a point I want to make about the current status of religious freedoms. The BA check-in attendant hurt no one by wearing her cross, you see them everyday and I as someone who doesn’t believe in religion have absolutely no problem with it. However when your religious beliefs start to impact on members of the public, as in the latter cases, you are not afforded any protection under the law. From an amoral perspective it’s a numbers game. One person is denied a right as opposed to the numerous amounts of people who are denied a service or put at risk.

By Jack Troup

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One comment

  1. It’s a thin division between religion and law; the battle to maintain the small separation that exists and try to widen it … well … it’s not going so well, at least not that I see. At least we have the embedded principle here, even if the practice is often something else.

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