Sunday, 20 September 2009

Christian Nurses with a Cross to Bear

This is a hurried post since I am traveling between cases at present however 2 stories have struck my attention and I was even quoted in one of them

In Liverpool a Couple are charged under s5 of the Public Order Act because of what they are alleged to have said to a Muslim guest in their B&B during a discussion on religion. Now in fairness I haven't seen all the facts but as a lawyer I am increasingly concerned by the way the Police are turning to the Public Order Act merely because someone feels "offended" by what has been said. This is not what the Public Order Act is there to do. As was said by Mr Justice Moses in the case of Dehal v CPS [2005] EWHC 2154 (Admin) at para 5

"the criminal law should not be invoked unless and until it is established that the conduct which is the subject of the charge amounts to such a threat to public disorder as to require the invocation of the criminal as opposed to the civil law"

The other story concerns a Christian Nurse ordered to stop wearing a Cross on "Health and Safety" grounds. Leaving aside the point that she has worn the cross on duty for 30 years without injuring herself or anyone else I was struck by the fact that the Trust aparently allows members of other faiths to wear religious symbols such as the Muslim Hijab or Sikh Kara. They attempted to justify this difference in treatment by saying of the Nurse "wearing a cross was not a requirement of her faith". This is a common argument used in these types of case which is both theologically illiterate and legally unjustified.

To treat members of different faiths differently is unlawful discrimination and cannot be justified by arguments about whether a religious item is a "requirement" of a faith. In the 2008 High Court case of Sikh Schoolgirl Sakira Singh [2008] EWHC 1865 (Admin) Mr Justice Silber clearly laid down that the legal test for discrimination was not whether a religious item (in that case a Sikh Kara bracelet) was religiously compulsory but rather whether the item was "an extremely important indication of faith" and wearing a cross clearly falls into that category.

In addition treating Christians differently to members of other faith creates community divisions and feelings of injustice. Members of other faiths are not objecting to Christians wearing the cross and neither should this NHS Trust

As a final point it is arguable that wearing a cross IS required by the Christian faith. The 7th Ecumenical Council of 787 said

"As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes"

I was once on radio in a discussion about religious symbols and the law and the presenter made the usual remark that the cross wasn't compulsory for Christians unlike the Hijab or Kara so I said "Well what about the 7th Ecumenical Council of 787". Believe me if you want to stop someone dead in their tracks saying "what about the 7th Ecumenical Council" is a very good way of doing it !

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