The offense of the cross
Shouldn’t Christians have the same rights as other NHS employees?
When the cross is abolished, and the rage of tyrants and heretics ceases on the one side, and all things are in peace, this is a sure token that the pure doctrine of God’s Word is taken away — Martin Luther
Mary Onouoha, like Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin before her, has been ordered to remove her cross at work as part of her employer’s uniform policy. Long lost is David Cameron’s promise to change the law to ensure the cross can be worn at work. Too quickly forgotten is the European Court of Human Rights ruling condemning the United Kingdom for censoring the cross, its first ever finding against the United Kingdom for violating freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Degrading demands were made in an attempt to cover up the cross
Mary has been employed by the Croydon University Hospital since 2001 as a theatre nurse. Throughout her employment, as a means of manifesting her Christian faith, she has worn a small cross around her neck. Mary wore her necklace for nearly fifteen years without issue. Then in 2014 and 2015, despite the hospital’s uniform code making allowances for the wearing of saris, turbans, kirpan, skullcaps, hijabs and kippahs as part of its policy “welcoming diversity”, Mary was told on several occasions that she had to hide her cross under her uniform or remove it completely. In August 2018, it was insinuated to Mary that failure to do so would result in disciplinary proceedings being brought against her. Degrading and humiliating demands were then made of Mary in an attempt to cover up the cross, despite other members of the same medical team openly wearing necklaces without consequences. Since then, Mary has been redeployed to assist a receptionist outside of the clinical areas in a non-nursing capacity in breach of her nursing contract.
One of the common misunderstandings about religious freedom in the United Kingdom is that it is not sufficiently protected by our laws. The truth is that our right to manifest our Christian faith is, or at least should be, robustly protected under the Human Rights Act 1998. The problem is more complicated than what the law says. It is a structural problem within our culture, including among institutions like the NHS and our judicial system, that simply do not grasp the importance of the cross to Christians.
As the European Court held in the Eweida case, it is a fundamental right to be able to manifest one’s faith by wearing a cross. The Court reasoned that this right exists, in part, because a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity. Equally important, the Court noted, is the ability of believers who have made Christianity a central tenet of their lives, to be able to communicate the value of their faith to others. Incidentally, this right extends beyond wearing religious jewellery to evangelism and trying to convince one’s proverbial neighbour of the truth of their faith.
Discriminating against the cross breaches a hospital’s equality duty
In addition to the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010 also protects the right of Christians from being discriminated against because of their Christian faith. Section 13 of the Act prohibits an employer from treating a Christian less favourably than a non-Christian employee because of their faith. Section 19 prohibits an employer from implementing a provision, criterion or practice which would have the effect of disadvantaging people because of their Christian faith. These provisions are important when looking at Mary’s case and showing why discriminating against the cross breaches a hospital’s equality duty.
Granted, anti-discrimination law is not absolute. There is a right to treat people differently despite their having a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, if there is a legitimate reason for doing so, and the means to achieve that aim are proportionately tailored. For example, a common argument in favour of hospital policies prohibiting the wearing of things like necklaces in an operating theatre, is that such prohibitions promote health and safety. If such policies are facially neutral in that they are applied consistently to all employees, religious or non-religious, then an employer may have a legitimate claim that they have acted non-discriminatorily.
That is not the case for Mary. Other members of staff routinely wear jewellery in the operating theatre, including necklaces with adornments visible to the public. Other religious traditions are routinely accommodated by the hospital in publicly wearing their religious attire. The argument is so frivolous that health and safety concerns were at play when the hospital prohibited Mary from displaying her cross, that as part of her duties Mary routinely wore a lanyard holding several heavy and obtrusive keys while nursing.
Christianity faces public intolerance and suspicion in Europe
In 1898, Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon at New Park Street Chapel in Southwark on Galatians 5:11, on “the offense of the Cross”. The Prince of Preachers could not have been more correct when he mused that as “gentle as the gospel is, and inoffensive as its professors have always proved themselves to be, when they have acted rightly…yet there has never been anything which has caused more disturbance in the world than the Christian religion”. The cross has, as Spurgeon poignantly relayed to his congregation that evening, burned much that man thought would last forever.
Mary’s case raises important questions. Shouldn’t Christians be subjected to the same rules, and have the same rights, as other employees? Why do some NHS employers feel that the cross is less worthy of protection or display than other religious attire? Should a nurse have to choose between her faith and the profession she loves? What makes the cross so offensive that threats of punishment are made just to cover it up?
The latter question is one of theology and culture. Nearly 2000 years after Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians speaking of the offense of the cross, not much has changed. Perhaps now more than at any other time since Constantine legalised the practise in the Roman empire, Christianity faces public intolerance and suspicion in Europe. Perhaps the next time we sing God save the Queen, we would do well to remember that she is saved by the very same cross that so many here in the United Kingdom seek to censor.
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