Gas is turned up on the battle for a secular society

The battle between religious privilege and secularism is really hotting up, with some extraordinary legal developments this week.

Court Of Human Rights

The first one from the European Court of Human Rights could have big implications for Britain, too. It decided that the display of crucifixes in Italian state schools is an abuse of children’s human rights under the European Convention. The decision was reached, unanimously, after one set of parents objected to the overtly sectarian displays in their child’s classroom. The European Court ruled that (the following are unofficial translations from a ruling in French) “The presence of the crucifix ... could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign and they would feel that they were being educated in a school environment bearing the stamp of a given religion,” adding the presence of such symbols could be “disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists.'”

The court added that “The State was to refrain from imposing beliefs in premises where individuals were dependent on it. In particular, it was required to observe confessional neutrality in the context of public education, where attending classes was compulsory irrespective of religion, and where the aim should be to foster critical thinking in pupils.”

The judgment further rejected Italian legal arguments that the crucifix was somehow a symbol that promoted pluralism.

Naturally, with the Vatican right in the middle of its capital city, there was a great deal of bleating from the clerics – and from the politicians who they seem to be able to control. They claimed that, somehow, the crucifix — the brand image of one particular sect of Christianity — was “neutral” and didn’t represent Catholicism. Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini protested against the decision, saying the crucifix is a “symbol of our tradition.” She said: “In our country nobody wants to impose the Catholic religion, let alone with a crucifix,” but she added that “it is not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built.”

The Italian Government has already announced that it intends to appeal against the judgment, and if it succeeds the Court will have to revisit the decision, but if it doesn’t, they’ll have three months to do something about it. That should make for a very interesting confrontation.

The European Court of Human Rights is not part of the European Union and it should not be confused with the European Court of Justice, which is.

The new eco-religion

And then we have the case of Tim Nicholson, the environmental campaigner who managed to persuade an employment appeals tribunal that his “green philosophy” should have the same protection under the employment regulations that religion and belief does.

Mr Nicholson asserts that he was made redundant from his job because his employers didn’t like his views and didn’t like the way he criticised what he saw as their wasteful approach to the environment.

The Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003 protect employees from discrimination on the grounds of their religion or (non) belief. They prevent employers sacking or disadvantaging employees because of their religion (“We don’t want Muslims/Jews/Sikhs/atheists working here”). Religious activists have been seeking to rely on the Regulations to require their employers to extend special privileges to them because of their religion.

This week, for instance, Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who doesn’t want to conduct civil partnerships because she says to do so would be against her “conscience”, has taken her case to the Court of Appeal. Previous courts have ruled that she is not being discriminated against – she is simply being required to carry out her job in its entirety.

Extending that to Mr Nicholson’s case, the question will be: was he made redundant simply because of what he believed about environmentalism or was it because he was trying to impose those beliefs on an employer who didn’t share them? (His former employer says neither.)

If Mr Nicholson wins it could have big implications for workplaces, but this will depend on the precise details of the ruling. So far, the employment tribunals have rejected the cases of religious activists trying to obtain special treatment because of their faith, and upheld those cases where people have been sacked or mistreated solely because they belonged to a particular religion.

Parliament has made this rod for the courts and now judges will be hard-pressed to sort it out in a way that doesn’t give religious people — or Greens or vegetarians — the right to force their beliefs and practices onto others in the workplace. In some workplace canteens, for instance, only halal food is served. Could we be looking forward to vegetarians insisting that they don’t want their canteen meals prepared in the same kitchen as meat and fish?

Berlin’s secular schooling under pressure from religion

Meanwhile, in Berlin, a court has granted a Muslim boy the right to pray on school premises during breaks. The pupil has been praying in the school since March 2008 after a court granted him a temporary injunction pending the outcome of the main hearing in September this year. The head of the school — where more than 80 per cent of the pupils are from immigrant backgrounds — opposed the prayer sessions saying the school might be inundated with similar requests.

But the court ruled that one boy praying would not disrupt the school day, nor contravene the secularism underlying education policy in all German states. “This is not about the freedom to believe that comes from within,” the judge said, “but the right to express that faith openly; for example, through prayer.”

The ruling is significant for Berlin, where Muslim students make up more than half the pupils in some city schools. It also marks an important milestone in German legal history; for the first time, the judiciary wrestled with the problem of how far the individual may exercise religious rights. The crux of the matter was to avoid any possible conflict between the religious freedom guaranteed by the constitution and the strict neutrality binding the state which affects all state institutions and forbids, for example, the hanging of crucifixes in public schools.

Meanwhile, the authorities in Berlin plan to lodge an appeal since they fear the court ruling might lead to a proliferation of religious demands and divisiveness throughout city schools.