Christina Patterson: For God's sake, let them wear their crosses

Wearing a necklace, or a nose stud, or even an earring, doesn't stop you doing your work

Christina Patterson
Tuesday 04 September 2012 20:23

So was it fun? Was the start, and end, of your holiday fun? Did you like the bit where you had to stuff your handbag into your hand luggage to get past one man, and then take out your laptop, and phone, and iPad, to get past another man, and also your lipstick and mascara and eyeliner, and then take off your belt and your shoes?

Did you think, while you were standing in your third very long queue, that you weren't absolutely sure that a lipstick could bring an aeroplane down, but that actually your nail file or make-up mirror, if you used it in the right way, might? Did you find yourself thinking that the people who started all this, by believing that crashing a plane was a passport to paradise, deserved to spend their lives, if they were still alive, in airport security hell?

Or did you think, as you queued for one thing, and then another thing, and worried about whether your hand luggage was too heavy, and worried that you wouldn't be allowed to eat the sandwich you couldn't quite fit in it, that all of this was fine, but that there was one thing that wouldn't be? And that that thing would be the sight of a check-in clerk wearing a cross?

If you did, you probably don't have to worry, because airlines don't seem to like it when members of their staff wear crosses. British Airways told Nadia Eweida in 2006 that she couldn't wear one with her uniform, or at least that she couldn't wear one that could be seen. She was upset that she couldn't, since Muslim colleagues were allowed to wear a headscarf, and Sikh colleagues were allowed to wear a turban. She felt, in fact, the same way Shirley Chaplin felt when, after 30 years of nursing, she was told she wouldn't be allowed to wear her cross at work any more. She thought, and Shirley Chaplin thought, and quite a few other people thought, that the ban, which the British courts upheld, wasn't fair.

She thought it was so unfair that she's taking her case, and so is Shirley Chaplin, to the European Court of Human Rights. Their lawyers, who are lawyers from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, will tell the court that employers should "expect to accommodate expression of religion" by their workers. The Government's lawyers will tell the court that wearing a cross isn't part of the Christian faith. They'll tell them that Christians who can't wear a cross at work can get another job.

It's quite strange that it's the lawyers from the equality watchdog, which tends to have more support from people on the left than from people on the right, who are standing up for religious tradition, and it's the lawyers from a right-wing Government who aren't. It's particularly strange since the Prime Minister, who says he's "a typical member of the Church of England", whose faith "sort of comes and goes", has said that "we are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so". It's even more strange since he has said that he wants a "big expansion" of "faith-based education", which means schools funded by the Government to teach children anything they like.

Many of us think that a "big expansion" of a "faith-based education" isn't a great idea. We'd prefer it if our taxes weren't used to teach children that the world was created in seven days, or that a woman's hair triggers such lust it should be covered up. We'd prefer it if they weren't used to teach children that people who don't have exactly the same beliefs as them are going, and should go, to hell. We don't think this is the best way to prepare children for life in a multi-ethnic society, in a globalised world. But some of us might think it's one thing to fund a faith school, and it's quite another to let a Christian wear a cross.

We might think it does seem unfair that Muslims and Sikhs are allowed to wear very noticeable things because they take their holy books literally, and Christians aren't allowed to wear a tiny bit of metal because they usually don't. We might want to point out that wearing a necklace, or a nose stud, or an earring, doesn't stop you doing your work. It isn't, whatever the nursing bosses say, going to kill a patient, which quite a few other things a nurse can do will. It doesn't mean you can refuse, like the Christian registrar who won't conduct civil partnerships, to do bits of your job. A cross is just a cross. It's a tiny symbol that means a lot to the person who wears it, and not all that much to anyone else.

If I were a practising Christian, I think I might feel quite fed up. I might think of all the taxes I'd paid to fund other people's religious festivals, and all the efforts that had been made, in schools and colleges, and canteens, to make people from other religious backgrounds feel at home. I might think of the TV programme an eminent historian recently made about Islam, which talked about the historical evidence for the existence of Muhammed, and which triggered so many threats he said he wished he hadn't. I think I might be quite surprised that there seemed to be more "tolerance" for the beliefs of people who sometimes seemed to want to do other people harm than for the beliefs of people who didn't.

If I were a practising Christian, I think I might want to remind some employers, and some courts, that some decisions, like some of the officials in those airport queues, who tell you all the things you can't do, and seem to quite enjoy it, just seem mean.;

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