It has been reported that the Government has replied to various cases before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the wearing of the cross by Employees. The Governments view, and that of the Courts would appear to be that bans on the wearing of a cross are OK because the wearing of the Cross is not compulsory in Christianity, therefore the wearing of the Sikh Turban or Islamic Hijab cannot be prohibited but the wearing of a cross can be.
My big worry with this approach is the idea that a Secular Government and Secular Courts are allowed to discriminate between Religions based on Theological points within the religions themselves. There seems no awareness that this distinction is itself discriminatory because it gives a privileged legal position to those religions with specific and detailed rules as against those with more flexible rules.
More to the point the distinction misunderstands the nature of religious practice which is often a complex mixture of rules, beliefs, customs and rituals which often may not be formally prescribed but which are nevertheless regarded by religious believers as integral parts of their faith. The Second Council of Nicaea 787 noted that "the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol" and for Millenia the wearing of a cross by Christians has been regarded as a fundamental custom and practice of most Christians even though it has not been been formally required as an obligation of faith.
Therefore to attempt to distinguish between the wearing of a cross and the wearing of a Sikh Turban or Islamic Hijab on the basis that one is required but the other is not is to create a completely theologically illiterate, an artificial and an unrealistic distinction. It is an approach that goes against the fundamental principle of a secular society with secular courts because it involves secular Courts making religious decisions as to what is or is not compulsory in a religion.
What is also worrying is why the Courts and now government have adopted this approach. Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights says
Article 9 Freedom of thought, conscience and religion 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. 2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
What the Courts and Government are saying is that the wearing of a cross is not a "manifestation" of religion because it is not compulsory therefore restrictions on the wearing of a cross do not have to be justified under Article 9.2 as being restrictions which are "necessary in a democratic society".
I suspect that most fair minded secularists and atheists would accept that the wearing of a cross by a believing Christian is a "manifestation" of the Christian faith even if they think that that manifestation should be restricted or banned along with the manifestation of other forms of religion. If so then those Atheists and Secularists would be being more fair minded towards Christians than the British Courts or the British Government.