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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

How many times can these Christian "victims" cry wolf before people ignore them?

By Terry Sanderson

It’s a case of Onward Christian Soldiers this week as ever-more feeble claims of religious discrimination are concocted and brought to public attention.

In the first case, a midwife took her employer, Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, to an employment tribunal because they wouldn’t allow her to wear a skirt in the operating theatre. The strict uniform policy is that people in the sterile environment of theatre are obliged to wear standard “scrubs” – which, in this hospital, consist of trousers and top.

But Hannah Adewole claimed that it is against her Christian religion to wear trousers because the Bible forbids it. Mrs Adewole cites a command in the Book of Deuteronomy that people should not wear clothing meant for the other gender. (“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does.” Deuteronomy 22:5, New International Version.)

“I believe that the Bible is truth and that its words should be followed wholeheartedly,” the literalist Mrs Adewole told the tribunal last week, as she sued the NHS for £7,000 in damages.

As a midwife at City University London, Mrs Adewole said she was ordered to wear scrub trousers to prevent infection. When she refused, she was moved from the labour ward to post-natal care until the end of her course.

She said: “I know that in many hospitals skirts and dresses are worn and this would not be so if there was any real risk of infection. They would not listen and seemed angry at me. I was traumatised by the intolerance towards my religious needs.”

Mrs Adewole started work as a £24,000-a-year midwife at Queen’s in March 2008. She alleges that she was assured at interview that her uniform demands would be accommodated.

For many months Mrs Adewole claimed she completed caesareans wearing a sterile gown over her chosen sterile scrub dresses. But in March 2009 the midwife in charge of the high dependency unit ejected her from the theatre for wearing a dress. Mrs Adewole told the tribunal: “It was humiliating.”

But as is the way with these cases, the employment tribunal threw out Mrs Adewole’s claim, saying that the strict uniform policy in force at Queen’s Hospital did not disadvantage Christians and was “legitimate and proportionate for infection control”. We’re pleased to say Mrs Adewole still has her job, but her lawyers are considering launching an appeal that will cost the hard-pressed NHS Trust even more money to contest.

Of course there are many laws in the Bible that a compassionate and upstanding woman like Mrs Adewole wouldn’t want enforced – death penalties for the most mundane offences and torture for things that we now consider trivial.

But it does seem that many of these Christian activists only want to abide by the laws that they find congenial. And when there is no biblical law to support their complaints (there is no injunction in the Bible to wear a cross or crucifix, for instance) they simply invent them.

Which brings us to this week’s other moaning Christian. This one is Colin Atkinson, who attained the status of “persecuted Christian martyr” after he was asked by the housing association he works for to remove a cross from the dashboard of his company van following a complaint from a tenant.

After the Mail and the Telegraph had orchestrated the usual exaggerated brouhaha about “banned crosses” and the “sidelining of religion”, the housing association backed down and the cross stayed. Now Mr Atkinson says he is being “harassed” by his employer,Wakefield and District Housing (WDH).

Enter the nuisances at the Christian Legal Centre, supporters of most of these hyped up but empty claims of discrimination, saying that Mr Atkinson had suffered “continual problems” since returning to work, including having his van taken away from him and being told to travel by bus.

Being told to travel by bus! A Christian having to do what everyone else has to do? What an outrageous suggestion. He has also been moved to a different office 16 miles away, the centre said.

Mr Atkinson said: “WDH have broken faith with me and not restored me to my job as they promised. I was told to travel in by bus and I suffered harassment at work. This is all because I wanted to keep a small palm cross in my van. I have not done anything wrong and I just want to return to my normal workplace.”

Of course, because of employer confidentiality, we will not hear the Housing Association’s side of the story. And even if we do, it’s unlikely to find its way into the Daily Mail, as it will almost certainly be inconvenient to their portrayal of Mr Atkinson as a poor, harassed victim of intolerance.

Despite the press bullying whipped up by the mischief-makers at the Christian Legal Centre, the embattled housing association refused to comment.

But we should remember that the Christian activists have not won a single case that has been tested in court. The only “successes” they have had are those where they have been able to enlist their powerful friends in the press to browbeat employers into submission, as in the Atkinson case.

These two latest cases are really the bottom of the barrel as far as claims of discrimination go. They make it harder to take seriously cases where real injustice might be happening. Ms Minichiello Williams of the Christian Legal Centre should remember the story of the boy who cried wolf, and ask herself if she is really helping her fellow Christians with these tactics.

Meanwhile, another MP has withdrawn his name from the Early Day Motion supporting the “Christian martyrs” who have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Adrian Sanders, who is Lib Dem MP for Torbay said he hadn’t realised that most of the cases involved discrimination against gay people.

A rumour is also spreading that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is reconsidering its own plans to intervene in the case.

Published Fri, 05 Aug 2011