Religious liberty and the Government’s hot-head lawyers
His Grace posted last week on Eric Pickles’ spirited defence of the Faith which was received mainly positively, with some observable relief that there is at least one in the Cabinet who has a grasp of the concerns surrounding the denigration and marginalisation of Christianity faith in public life.
But there was one section of the article which caused some confusion (not least to His Grace). Mr Pickles wrote: ‘The Government’s opposition to a European Court of Human Rights challenge on crucifixes should not be misinterpreted as supporting secularism: rather, we are resisting Brussels interference and gold-plating of what should be a matter for common sense.’
This is interesting – not to say utterly bemusing – in the context of the legal arguments against the wearing of crucifixes (etc) being made by government lawyers at the European Court of Human Rights. They have made it clear that the position of HM Government is that Christians should ‘leave their beliefs at home or get another job’.
So, while the Prime Minister in Westminster is promising to protect religious expression at work by (if necessary) changing the law, government lawyers in Strasbourg insist that there is a ‘difference between the professional and private sphere’.
This appears to be somewhat schizophrenic, akin to the Conservative Party’s historically-professed cautious euroscepticism by MPs in the UK Parliament while the party’s MEPs were effusively europhile in Brussels by virtue of their membership of the EPP – a federalist group committed to ‘ever closer union’. At least David Cameron brought an end to that Jeckyll and Hyde existence.
In light of the legal arguments being used in Strasbourg to restrict the display of religious symbols and the manifestation of belief in the workplace - in the cases of Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane - either Eric Pickles and David Cameron are being duplicitous, or government lawyers are being over-zealous in their quest for courtroom victory.
It is easy to believe that the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are being disingenuous, deflective and ignorant of the real concerns: they are, after all, politicians. But if Mr Pickles happens to be honourable, honest and fully informed on the matter; and if Mr Cameron meant what he said to Parliament about the fundamental right to manifest one’s religion in the workplace, the only alternative conclusion is that the Government’s hot-headed lawyers have gone renegade in court: they are acting independently, failing to inform ministers of state or even run their legal arguments past (at least) the Attorney General in order to ensure that they cohere with pan-governmental objectives.
The British legal team arguing before the ECtHR that Christians in the UK have no right to wear a cross could not possibly have been briefed by the Government, because Conservatives know that the Church of England is the Established Church and the Queen is still its Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith: she does not distinguish ‘between the professional and private sphere’. It is a fundamental religious liberty to be able to dress, behave and speak in accordance with the precepts of one’s belief. The Christian faith must affect every aspect of one’s life, or it is not a living faith.
Our lawyers in Strasbourg are asserting secularism while our politicians back home are affirming faith. There can be only one victor. Thankfully, constitutionally, Parliament is omnipotent.