In light of speeches on religious freedom coming from top church leaders, and concerns expressed by family and other church members locally here in Britain recently, I wanted to take a brief look at this topic. Here, at least, I don’t think the rhetoric from the top is helpful.

In Britain we have the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and as part of Europe are also subject to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The latter sometimes comes in for some bad press nationally, but on the topic of religion at least, that would appear to be undeserved.

Following last weeks post by Mormon Heretic, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the workplace. Back in 2013 and updated in 2014 the EHRC produced guidance on the topic of religion and belief in the workplace. The first “Religion or Belief in the Workplace: An Explanation of Recent European Court of Human Rights Judgments” and the second “Religion or Belief in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers Following Recent European Court of Human Rights Judgments”.
I want to highlight this section from the first document:

“Until recently, the European Court of Human Rights and our domestic courts tended to take the view that a practice was protected under Article 9 only if it was required by the particular religion or belief. The new judgment confirms that a practice or manifestation motivated, influenced or inspired by religion or belief, and which is sufficiently linked to the religion or belief will be protected, regardless of whether it is a mandatory requirement of the religion or belief.

“The new judgment means that the courts cannot simply dismiss a case because of the possibility of changing jobs to other employment that allows the religious observance. Instead, this possibility should be a relevant factor, to be weighed amongst others, when considering whether or not the restriction is proportionate.
“The judgment means that courts will now give more attention to deciding whether restrictions on religious rights in the workplace are appropriate and necessary.”

That looks like a strengthening of protections to me, not a loss of privileges.

The summer before starting university, I took a job at the local hospital as a cleaner, specifically cleaning student nurse accommodation. We had to wear a uniform. That uniform was a knee length dress. It was made clear to us at that time that no exceptions were made for those who for religious reasons had to wear trousers, or otherwise cover their legs. None at all. Yet the city I lived in had and has a relatively large Muslim population. Employers would be expected to make accommodations now, given there is absolutely no pressing reason why a cleaner should not wear trousers. From the employers guide:

“The judgment affects employer responsibilities for policies and practices affecting religion or belief rights in the workplace, the rights of employees (including job applicants) and the rights of customers or service users.”

“An employer should take all requests seriously and should not make assumptions about the significance of a religion or belief, or disregard a request because it is made by only one employee. Even those who have the same religion may not share the same beliefs or practices.

“Employers are encouraged to take as their starting-point consideration as to how to accommodate the request unless there are cogent or compelling reasons not to do so, assessing the impact of the change on other employees, the operation of the business and other factors…”

It seems to me that because more cases are coming to court as opposed to simply being accepted as the way things are, it can look as though religion is under attack. In reality the cases cited were brought because people expect more freedom than had hitherto been given, and since then are being contested because things have improved, and there is room in law to contest.

Obviously, in a pluralist society, it is necessary to balance competing interests. The documents discuss this. It looks to me that the ECHR tries very hard to be fair in enabling a harmonious society.

From the first document:

“…since April 2011, section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 requires public authorities when exercising their functions to give due regard to eliminating prohibited conduct, advancing equality of opportunity and fostering good relations. These positive obligations, commonly known as the public sector equality duty, cover eight protected characteristics including religion or belief.”

It can frequently appear that those advocating loudest for freedom of religion, are interested only in freedom for their religion, and demonstrate little respect for the freedoms of those with whom they disagree. Surely that’s only going to give religion a bad name.

Elder Oaks has said:

“There should be room for all good-faith views in the public square, be they secular, religious, or a mixture of the two. When expressed sincerely and without sanctimoniousness, the religious voice adds much to the text and tenor of public debate.”

So far so good, and I especially appreciated that mention of secular views. All too often respect for those of no religion seems to fall by the way.

Given the recent changes in law in Europe, and the treatment of heretics throughout history, I don’t see “recent evidences of a narrowing definition of religious expression” or the “current public and legal climate of mounting threats to religious freedom”  Elder Oaks also describes. On the contrary. In my view ramping up the ‘at risk’ rhetoric in the face of increased protections can only irritate those who are being asked to make more accommodations for religion and belief.

  • What do you make of all the talk about religious freedom?
  • Do those of a traditionally majority religion sometimes feel threatened by those of minority religions, now given equal protection?
  • How does the legal position in the US differ to that in Britain?