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European Court's Grand Chamber urged to protect UK Christians from 'policing of thought'

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A special event has been held at the Council of Europe in relation to two UK Christians who are seeking a referral to the Grand Chamber in their religious freedom cases at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Lawyers addressed Parliamentarians and national Government representatives about the cases involving Christian Legal Centre clients Shirley Chaplin and Gary McFarlane.

They explained the need for the Grand Chamber to secure greater practical protections for Christians against oppressive policing of thought and religious practice by State authorities.

Ruling

In January, the ECHR found that the UK had failed to protect the religious freedom of British Airways’ worker, Nadia Eweida. It was the first time that the UK had ever been found in violation of Article 9 (‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’).The Court also strongly critiqued the UK’s recent approach to religious freedom.

Remarkably, the UK Government had asserted that the wearing of the cross and beliefs about the nature of marriage were not intimately connected to core Christian identity and therefore not protected by the European Convention. The Government also suggested that the freedom to resign and find another job automatically secured freedom of religion.

The Court rejected these assertions.

Notwithstanding this, the Court suggested in its preliminary judgment that the UK’s treatment of Nurse Shirley Chaplin and Relationships Counsellor Gary McFarlane fell within the wide ‘margin of appreciation’ afforded to member states.

Application

However in the Grand Chamber application submitted earlier this month, the pair argue that Article 9 protections in the UK will be rendered almost meaningless in practice if the Court does not give clearer direction, especially in a society that displays increasing hostility to Christian belief.

Nurse Shirley Chaplin is urging the Court not merely to rely on the Government’s assertion that her Confirmation Cross presented a ‘health and safety risk’ but to consider the evidence in the case. Otherwise, she argues, the Government can effectively introduce a blanket ban without justification or scrutiny.

Gary McFarlane, meanwhile, highlights how he was effectively penalised for ‘thought-crime’ since no-one would have been denied access to a service as a consequence of his possible conscientious objection to providing same-sex sex therapy. Such 'policing of thought' has disturbing consequences not only for Christians but for the future of a free society.

Significant

The cases are being carefully watched across Europe and are likely to have significant implications for the freedom of religion across the continent.

They also come at a time of increasing speculation about the UK’s future relationship with the European Court of Human Rights.

Speaking ahead of today’s event, Gary McFarlane, said:

“I am a practicing Christian with mainstream Christian beliefs but I lost my job and livelihood just because I dared to hint that I might have a conscientious objection to giving highly intimate homosexual sex therapy. No one was ever denied a service. No one else’s rights were infringed but I have been penalised for ‘thought-crime’. The climate in the UK is changing and so we are urging the European Court to insist on stronger protections for Christians and others in the UK.”

Primary right

Andrea Minichiello Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, said:

“For a society to remain free, ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion' under Article 9 must be recognised as a primary right. Its importance under the European Convention on Human Rights must be protected not just by words but also by deeds. In its judgment, the European Court hid behind the doctrine of ‘margin of appreciation’, allowing the UK government to continue to get away with its policies that increasingly marginalise and punish Christians for their beliefs and actions.

“In order for Article 9  to be taken seriously by member states the European Court needs to issue guidelines on how the doctrine of ‘margin of appreciation’ should be applied in order for it not to be abused. Furthermore, the  European Court should develop jurisprudence on ‘reasonable accommodation’ . Where an apparent 'clash of rights' arises but both can be accommodated, no person should be unnecessarily or unfairly punished.”

Background

Shirley Chaplin had worn her confirmation cross on a small chain around her neck, without incident, throughout her nearly thirty years in front-line nursing. Then, as part of a new uniform policy, she was told to remove it although allowances were made for the religious dress of others.

Gary McFarlane, an experienced relationships counsellor, indicated during a training course that if the situation ever arose he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith. He was dismissed for gross misconduct for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, despite the fact that the issue involved a hypothetical scenario and the fact that there was no risk of anyone being denied a service, since there were many other counsellors who were willing and able to provide it.

The Christian Legal Centre is directly supporting Gary McFarlane and Shirley Chaplin.

A further case concerns Lillian Ladele, a civil marriage registrar who was unable to conduct same-sex civil unions on account of her Christian faith. There were more than enough registrars to meet demand for the service and no danger of anyone being denied a service. However, Islington Council decided to discipline her rather than respect and accommodate her conscience.

Related stories:

Landmark Christian freedom cases proceed to next stage

European Court to rule on controversial Christian freedom cases

European Court Judgment: Big Steps forward but further to go

European Court of Human announces judgment in Christian freedom cases

For a selection of interviews and media reports on the cases, visit our media page >

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