Misunderstanding Equality
Religious liberty as a human-rights violation?

Nadia Eweida won a religious freedom case against British Airways on January 15, 2013.


A former British Airways employee won a victory this week when a European court upheld her right to wear a crucifix at work, despite her employer’s objection. But secularism had the run of the day at the same court. When conscience clashes with new postmodern understandings of equality, religious freedom often suffers: That’s what happened this week when the same court rejected their conscience claims. Paul Coleman, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund and author of Censored: How European ‘Hate Speech’ Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech, discusses the four cases involving religious liberty decided this week with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do you make of the mixed bag of rulings that the European Court of Human Rights delivered Tuesday?

PAUL COLEMAN: Nadia Eweida’s victory is historic. The ECHR has been in operation for just over 50 years. In that time, it has found approximately 13,000 violations of the European Convention on Human Rights but only 40 violations of the right to freedom of religion under Article 9 (approximately 0.3 percent of all violations). Secondly, the United Kingdom has never been found in violation of Article 9. In the Court’s written opinion there is some very helpful language which strengthens the protections afforded to freedom of religion. In particular, the Court took the opportunity to overturn several previous decisions that had unhelpfully stated that if an employee faces difficulties in the workplace because of his or her faith, having the freedom to resign is the best they can hope for. So in that context, this is in no way a minor or token victory.

While the Court could certainly have gone much further in protecting religious freedom, particularly in regard to the freedom of conscience, the victory in one of the cases is still extremely welcome and long overdue.


LOPEZ: Defenders of religious liberty are excited that the British Airways employee won her crucifix-on-the-job suit. But are the losses the more important news of the day?

COLEMAN: The losses in the conscience cases are deeply disappointing, and it is hoped that they will be overturned on appeal. The ECHR has stated on numerous occasions that freedom of religion is a “fundamental right.” Given that the applicants could easily have been accommodated by their employers, it is hard to see how such a fundamental right can be so easily overridden.

However, it is important to note that the ECHR, in deciding against the Christians, didn’t put in place a principle that will stop all future cases from being successful. Rather the Court held that it “allows the national authorities a wide margin of appreciation [i.e. discretion] when it comes to striking a balance between competing Convention rights. And, as it assessed these cases, it held that, “in all the circumstances, the Court does not consider that the national authorities . . . exceeded the margin of appreciation available to them” (paragraph 106).