NSS to intervene in European court in groundbreaking appeal cases

The National Secular Society has been given leave by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to intervene as a third party in four controversial religious rights cases being appealed at Strasbourg.

The appeals concern judgments by the UK courts in cases claiming religious discrimination. In all cases, domestic courts found that there had been no such discrimination. The outcome of the appeals could be hugely influential on the effectiveness of equality law in future.

The appeals concern cases brought by:

  • Nadia Eweida, who refused to comply with British Airways' uniform polic
  • Shirley Chaplin, who considers it a manifestation of her religion visibly to wear a crucifix on a chain around her neck (an employee of Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust). (These two are being appealed jointly.)
  • Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.
  • Gary McFarlane, a counsellor for Avon Relate who refused to give an unequivocal commitment to counsel same-sex couples. (These two are also being appealed jointly.)

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society commented: “These four cases have a major bearing on the extent to which employees’ manifestation of their religion can impinge on others. We want to make sure that the European court considers all aspects of the relevant law.

“The NSS’ submission will primarily deal with the implications for equal treatment that would be raised by the granting of greater protection to actions motivated by religious belief than is granted to actions motivated by fundamental beliefs that happen to be non-religious in nature.”

“Friend of the court” interventions of this kind are required to confine themselves to legal arguments, rather than express opinions on the facts of the cases.

The Christian Legal Centre is assisting those making their appeals. The applicants have not been given leave to appeal by the UK courts; they have exercised their right to appeal to the ECHR independently. The latter cases go to the heart of the perennial battleground between religious rights and homosexuality. The McFarlane case was the one that prompted the former Archbishop of Canterbury to call for specialist tribunals to deal with religious cases. This proposal was robustly dismissed by the presiding judge, Lord Justice Laws, a practising Anglican, and, significantly, his judgment has been cited to support subsequent judgements. The stakes are therefore high.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) controversially decided last month to seek to intervene in these cases, seemingly to suggest that more accommodation should be allowed to religious people, along the lines currently only permitted in respect of disability. This unleashed a furious backlash from the gay community. While the EHRC’s official position given on its website maintained the original line, Angela Mason, a Commissioner — but also a former head of Stonewall — reportedly broke ranks and suggested that an intervention on these lines would not now be made.

This is some indication of just how controversial this case could become.