Christians launch landmark defense of religious freedom
European Court of Human Rights to make final ruling on public displays of faith
Christians are to launch a landmark legal case arguing their religion is being treated as a “thought crime” by government and courts.
Campaigners will submit papers to the European Court of Human Rights in a final attempt to overturn rulings they say have restricted religious freedom for Christians and effectively persecuted those wanting to publicly practise their religion.
The move comes in the case of three Christians whose cases have become testing grounds over the restrictions which can be put on public displays of faith.
Their appeal to the Grand Chamber of the court will open the way for a final ruling on what limits can be put on such displays, including wearing a cross and talking about belief in the workplace.
Shirley Chaplin, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele all had their cases rejected at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg earlier this year.
In the case of Mrs Chaplin, an Exeter nurse who was forbidden to wear a cross at work, the Strasbourg judges ruled that her right to express her faith could be overridden on “health and safety” grounds.
Mr McFarlane, a former Relate counsellor, and marriage registrar Miss Ladele - who both resisted tasks they saw as condoning homosexuality, which they believe is against the Bible’s teaching - lost their cases.
In the case of Miss Ladele, who had asked to be excused from performing civil partnerships, two judges broke ranks, issuing a strongly worded dissenting judgment claiming that conscience is being sacrificed on the altar of “obsessive political correctness”.
Her lawyers will argue this time that her case could have “huge implications” regarding whether other workers, such as teachers or social workers, will be forced to promote gay marriage after it becomes law.
Papers in the three cases are to be submitted this week that will claim British courts are applying double standards towards Christians for “political” reasons, and that human rights rules have been used to effectively outlaw beliefs which have been held for millennia while affording special recognition to minority opinions on anything from fox hunting to climate change.
Meanwhile “self-evidently absurd” health and safety rules are being used as a “ruse” to prevent Christians wearing crosses while outward expressions of other faiths are welcomed, they say.
An overzealous and one-sided interpretation of rules has brought human rights law itself into disrepute and exposed the British judiciary itself to “ridicule”, they argue.
The open attack on the judiciary and escalation of rhetoric is a high-risk strategy supporters believe is necessary to “draw a line in the sand”.
In January, the lower chamber of the Strasbourg court ruled in favour of Nadia Eweida, a BA check-in clerk who was told the small cross she wore contravened the airline’s uniform policy — which has since been changed.
But it rejected the other three cases. Mr McFarlane was sacked after saying that he might struggle to conduct sex therapy sessions with same-sex couples, though he never actually refused to do so.
“He was dismissed for his 'thoughts’ and 'religious beliefs’ on a wholly theoretical basis,” according to arguments prepared on behalf of Paul Diamond, the religious rights barrister, who is representing Mr McFarlane and Mrs Chaplin.
“The case directly raises the question of conscience and 'thought crime’,” the papers say.
Mrs Chaplin, meanwhile, was the victim of “unsubstantiated” health and safety grounds, the papers argue.
They add: “The United Kingdom has an overall good record on human rights; in recent years this has come into sharp contrast due a number of decision made against Christians.
“Christian views on the upbringing of children by two parents have not been recognised as a religious view at all; whilst views on global warming, fox hunting, and even the BBC as a public broadcaster have been recognised.”
Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting Mr McFarlane and Mrs Chaplin, said: “We are throwing down the gauntlet to David Cameron to decide once and for all whether he is in favour of religious freedom or not.
“These are cases where the only victims were the Christians trying to live out their faith in the workplace but who were driven out for doing so.
“As the pleadings in Gary McFarlane’s case make clear, Christians are now being punished for 'thought crimes’.”
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