A Cross To Bear
The results of a Christian worker's employment tribunal have been published: BA may not have been quite as prejudiced as they seemed.
She was portrayed in the press as a victim of cruel religious discrimination - a poor persecuted Christian who had been "banned" by British Airways from wearing a simple cross at work. And all this while her Muslim and Sikh colleagues were parading about in hijabs and turbans.
The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Tony Blair came out in her defence. The Daily Mail took up the cudgels on her behalf. One hundred MPs spoke out in her favour. Bishops demanded a boycott of BA. Evangelical Christians went into paroxysms of righteous fury. At last - here was proof that they were innocent victims of Christianophobia - as practised by our very own national airline.
An open and shut case, you might think. Nadia Eweida was a Christian martyr, pure and simple.
But hang on a moment. The employment tribunal, to which she complained, has just published its judgment, and it tells a rather different story. Not only did it kick out all her claims of religious discrimination and harassment, it also criticised her for her intransigence, saying that she:
... generally lacked empathy for the perspective of others ... her own overwhelming commitment to her faith led her at times to be both naive and uncompromising in her dealings with those who did not share her faith.
One example of this was her insistence that she must never be required to work on Christmas Day, even though she had signed a contract that made it clear that she, like her colleagues, would be working in an operation that functions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and therefore required shift working and bank holiday working, too.
In order to be fair to everybody, BA used a union-approved ballot system to ensure that those who worked on Christmas Day were fairly and objectively chosen. If their name came up, they were at liberty to negotiate with their colleagues to change shifts and days on a like-for-like basis. But not Nadia. She insisted that, because she was a Christian, she must not be required to work on Christmas Day - or Sunday, come to that.
The tribunal commented:
[Eweida's] insistence on privilege for Christmas Day is perhaps the most striking example in the case of her insensitivity towards colleagues, her lack of empathy for those without religious focus in their lives, and her incomprehension of the conflicting demands which professional management seeks to address and resolve on a near-daily basis.
Eweida was originally suspended from work as a BA check-in clerk when she refused to wear a cross on a necklace underneath her uniform rather than on top of it. This breached stated uniform policy, which stated that no one was allowed to wear visible adornments around their neck.
But Eweida and her Christian activist backers managed to foment such a backlash that BA was forced into changing the policy. Now she can wear her cross visibly, and the airline offered her £8,500 compensation and a return to her job, with her point successfully made.
But no - she decided to continue pursuing the airline at the industrial tribunal. She was funded in her action by a rightwing religious law firm in Arizona called the Alliance Defence Fund, whose affiliated lawyer was Paul Diamond, a familiar figure in court cases demanding religious privilege.
The tribunal - unlike the Daily Mail - was required to look at all the evidence, and not consider only Eweida's account of events. And having done so, it kicked the case out on all counts, saying that Eweida did not suffer any discrimination.
The tribunal concluded:
The complaint of direct discrimination fails because we find that the claimant did not, on grounds of religion or belief, suffer less favourable treatment than a comparator in identical circumstances.
The tribunal also heard how Eweida's attitude and behaviour towards colleagues had prompted a number of complaints objecting to her: "Either giving them religious materials unsolicited, or speaking to colleagues in a judgmental or censorious manner which reflected her beliefs; one striking example," said the judgment, "was a report from a gay man that the claimant had told him that it was not too late to be redeemed."
Indeed, the proselytising motivation of her desire to wear the cross over her uniform instead of underneath it was underlined when she said: "It is important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them."
The details of this case make it clear that this is a woman who is wearing religious blinkers. In several instances she brought grievances and complaints against BA that had no basis in fact. She was convinced that BA was anti-Christian, and nothing would dissuade her from that opinion, despite the company jumping through hoops trying to accommodate the many and varied religious demands being placed on it. Indeed, there is a BA Christian Fellowship group that did not support Eweida's fight, and confirmed that BA was already "making available facilities, time, work spaces, intranet use and supporting Christian charitable activities throughout the world" - but strangely we haven't heard about them in the newspaper reports.
The tribunal notes that on the original claim form, Eweida states "I have not been permitted to wear my Christian cross; whilst other faiths (Sikhs, Hindu, Muslims) are permitted to manifest their faith in very obvious fashion. Secular individuals can show private affiliations." The tribunal found the first and last assertions to be untrue. But Eweida would not be persuaded.
Her numerous demands for special treatment because of her religion showed a complete indifference to the effect it would have on the lives of others. Indeed, in one instance she made an accusation against the Christian Fellowship group that turned out to be completely fallacious, and the tribunal felt compelled to say: "We find it demonstrates to a degree the extent to which the claimant [Eweida] misinterpreted events, as well as her readiness to make a serious accusation without thought of the implications."
Now we read that there is another case in the pipeline for British Airways. An orthodox Jewish man is bringing a case of religious discrimination because he is required to work on Saturday, the Jewish Shabat.
And a demonstration by Sikhs has just taken place outside the Welsh assembly, demanding that a schoolgirl be permitted to breach the school's uniform policy by wearing a ceremonial bangle, the kara.
As Jonathan Bartley, of the religious thinktank Ekklesia said of the Eweida case:
Like many of the other claims of discrimination being made by Christians, this has turned out to be false. People should be aware that behind many such cases there are groups whose interests are served by stirring up feelings of discrimination of marginalisation amongst Christians. What can appear to be a case of discrimination at first glance is often nothing of the sort. It is often more about Christians attempting to gain special privileges and exemptions.
The National Secular Society has demanded that employers should be permitted to declare their workplaces secular spaces if they want to, without penalty. Attempts by employers to accommodate everyone have turned many workplaces into religious battlegrounds. It should now be OK to say: "Leave your religion at the door, please. And if you won't and your religion doesn't permit you to work in the way that this job demands you do, then please find another job that will."
As published in The Guardian Comment is Free.
January 17 2008