Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Some Thoughts On The Cases Of Nadia Eweida And Others

The decisions in the cases of Nadia Eweida and others are a bit of a mixed bag.

Congratulations, of course, to Ms. Eweida, upon her victory in her case. The treatment to which she was subjected reeks of someone having tried to make far-reaching policy on the hoof, agenda optional. That particular practice is one that always ends in tears, and it's a pity that Ms. Eweida has been required to go so far as Strasbourg in order to get a rational decision. However I am slightly dubious about whether the cases raised by Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane should ever have been brought.

Ms. Ladele was a registrar with Islington Council who declined to conduct civil partnerships. If she did not find officiating at civil marriages between men and women to be incompatible with her beliefs, it is hard to see how she could  decline to officiate at civil partnerships without facing disciplinary action. While one may legitimately disapprove of homosexuality on religious grounds and believe that the state has no right to declare what conduct is either moral or immoral, the state is perfectly entitled to declare what is legal and what is illegal. The principal characteristic that civil marriages and civil partnerships share is their civil nature (and there are some very good arguments for the existence of civil partnerships); and if she was willing to help those seeking to exercise one class of civil right her employers could perfectly reasonably require her to help those seeking to exercise another, and directly comparable, class of civil right. This might have been distasteful for her, I'm sure, but it would be fundamental to her ability to work as a registrar. 

Gary McFarlane was a relationship counsellor with Relate who indicated that he might object to counselling same-sex couples. I don't know anything about the specifics of his case, but I suspect Mr. McFarlane might have been as much a victim of our celebrated system of flexible employment rights (and also of the state's now de facto control of the charitable sector) as of any anti-Christian discrimination. If Mr. McFarlane's contract of employment had the bog standard 'such other duties as the employer might require' clause in it, then I would have to say his very principled position was undermined by Parliaments both British and European before he even opened his mouth. If 'such other duties' are deemed to include counselling same-sex couples, then that is what such other duties would be and he could be required to perform them.

What might also have been the case was that if his employers were receiving any funding of any kind from the state, they would have to ensure that they were not seen to be discriminating in any way, shape or form, otherwise their funding would be cut. To say again I don't know anything about the specifics of Mr. McFarlane's case, but if Relate was receiving state funding then it would be interesting to know whether financial considerations were a factor in its decision to discipline him. Ms. Ladele's stance, very courageous as it was, was also perhaps more foolhardy, more clearly contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law than Mr. McFarlane's. I can't help getting the feeling that Mr. McFarlane was something of a sacrificial lamb; cut loose, perhaps, for no cause higher than money, or maybe even to help someone else keep their own job.

Yet the case of Shirley Chaplin is the most ambivalent, and disturbing, of all. It is what has not been said about her case that shouts the loudest of all. 

Ms. Chaplin was a nurse who had worn a crucifix on her wards for 30 years without incident, before being told to remove it on the grounds of health and safety. Keith Porteous-Wood, the National Secular Society wallah wheeled out to dutifully bloviate on behalf of Britain's poor, downtrodden godless whenever Christ gets a kicking from the law, a task he always seem to perform not only with exemplary diligence but also an enthusiasm that borders on relish, has been quoted as saying that "(r)eligious people who feel elements of their job go against their conscience can always find employment that better matches their needs", an observation which explains precisely not only why Shirley Chaplin was a nurse but also why so many atheist doctors work in hospitals run by, er, orders of nuns (hint - deep down, many of them think they're Peter Finch giving Audrey Hepburn the cracker talk, you know, really reminding her that the Belgian government pays her to assist at operations and not to attend Mass, and all the while forgetting that he's unable to run his operating theatre without her).

Ms. Chaplin was presumably extremely conversant with the principles of infection control, so hygiene can be discounted as a factor. She'd presumably been around the nursing block often enough to know how to handle fractious patients. So could any other factor have led to her employers requiring her to remove a crucifix she wore on a chain, on the grounds of health and safety? 

The only health and safety grounds I can think of that might justify such a personally invasive demand would be if Ms. Chaplin and her colleagues worked in an environment in which there had been a dramatic increase in the number of patient-upon-nurse assaults, no quarter attacks in which any type of weapon is acceptable; even, God forbid, a crucifix. Any body which bans any practice on the grounds of health and safety is usually petrified of being sued - and it would be very interesting to know whether there had been an increase in patient-upon-nurse assaults in her hospital, and whether the risk of exposure to litigation animated what seems to be the now declaredly equal and therefore perfectly legal, and also patronising and barmy, decision to tell Ms. Chaplin to remove her crucifix. This case may have had nothing to do with Ms. Chaplin's crucifix being an impediment to health and safety; it might have had everything to do with her employers' inability to protect her and her colleagues from the violence of those they were caring for.

And who should pop up like a Jack in the box but Shami Chakrabarti, describing the verdicts as "an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense".

Chakrabarti was not so vocal in her defence of the legal rights of Jon Venables - and if God spares me, I'm never going to let her forget it. 

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