In one of the most significant cases coming before the European Court of Human Rights out of the UK, the government’s Queens Counsel argued that that an employee’s ability to resign "guarantees freedom of religion."
As we noted in our blog last week, a group of four cases were coming before the Court involving practicing Christians who allege employment discrimination in violation of articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights – two lost their jobs because they refused to remove a cross or crucifix; the third objected to being required to perform civil-partnership ceremonies; and the last was fired because his religious beliefs prevented him from counseling same-sex couples.
The court heard an interesting argument from both sides. The government contended that “where [the employees] can obtain alternative employment in which they can practise their religion as they wish ... [they] were able to manifest their religious belief in many ways outside the professional sphere." Counsel for one of the employees responded that this argument could be used to justify state-sponsored anti-Semitism: "The logical implication of the Government's assertion is the rather startling one that a state employer could have a policy of refusing to employ practising Jews and say that was not a violation if other employers were prepared to employ them."
Outside of court, reaction was just as strident. A spokesman for the National Secular Society was quoted as saying that "Any further accommodation of religious conscience in UK equality law would create a damaging hierarchy of rights, with religion trumping all,” and the chief executive of the British Humanist Association said that "Cases like this, which ought to be sorted out in a sensible common-sense way on the ground, are being used to whip up a narrative of persecution, which is really a fig-leaf for an attempt to increase the visibility of privilege of religion in public life."