March 12th, 2012
02:05 PM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
Britain will argue that the two Christian women at the center of the case had the option of quitting their jobs and working elsewhere, so they are not covered by European human rights law, according to legal papers obtained by CNN.
"Employees who face work requirements incompatible with their faith, and have the option of resigning and seeking alternative employment, cannot claim for a breach of Article 9" of the European Convention on Human Rights, Britain will argue.
The government will also say that wearing a cross is not a requirement of Christianity, so wearing one in public is not protected by the law.
The European Court of Human Rights has agreed to hear the case of the two British women, who say their employers discriminated against them by refusing them allow them to display their crosses, calling them violations of their policy on uniforms.
The British government is the defendant in the case, and is being taken to court by British Airways worker Nadia Eweida and nurse Shirley Chaplin.
The British Home Office told CNN Monday that the United Kingdom is not in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But Andrea Minichiello Williams, head of the group Christian Concern, said the government's line of argument is "extraordinary."
And she said Christians are increasingly being marginalized in Britain.
"Christians are losing their jobs. They are being forced from the public square," she said, declaring that the government's argument that Christians could quit and work somewhere else "smacks of the beginnings of totalitarianism."
A source familiar with the intricacies of the case called the British government position "incredibly crude and stupid."
"They have come up with the most extreme argument, that fundamentally religion is protected by your ability to leave and seek alternative employment," said the source, who is not authorized to speak about the case on the record and asked not to be named.
"It's a very hostile argument. You wouldn't say a black man can be sacked, that a homosexual can be sacked," the source said.
She also criticized the head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said Sunday that "the cross itself has become a religious decoration."
Williams' spokesman, David Brownlie-Marshall, said the archbishop's words were being taken out of context.
Williams was preaching about the need to think intensely about the meaning of the cross, rather than the object itself, his spokesman said, and was not referring to the court case.
The head of Christian Concern said that isn't good enough.
"It's not a time for the archbishop of Canterbury to be obscure and incomprehensible," she said. "It's time for him to find his voice. He needs to be clear that for many the cross is the symbol of Christianity, and he needs to empower Christians up and down the country to wear the cross as a symbol of hope."
The second-highest ranking archbishop in the Church of England took a much stronger line Sunday.
Archbishop of York John Sentamu said the government is "beginning to meddle in areas that they ought not to."
"People should be able to manifest their faith," he said, citing Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as the two Christian women do.
Christian Concern is supporting Eweida and Chaplin at the European court in Strasbourg.
But the source familiar with the case said the Christians have an uphill fight, saying it is "highly unlikely that a European court will anger a national government" by ruling against it.
A top thinker on the role of religion in society, on the other hand, argued that the case should never have ended up in court in the first place.
"In these cases, it would be wise for all parties to take a breath, back off from the courts and go back to the negotiating table," said Elizabeth Hunter, director of the British think tank Theos.
"We need to learn to deal with our differences like grown-ups," she said. "Not by restricting the rights of people of faith to what the state says is a requirement, nor by privileging them at the expense of others, but by listening and doing the difficult, necessary, case-by-case compromising."
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