September 4th, 2012
08:07 AM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
Four British Christians urged Europe's top court Tuesday to rule that they faced discrimination because of their religious beliefs.
Two women accuse their employers of refusing to let them wear crosses openly at work.
Alongside them, a woman who declined to register gay civil partnerships and a man who did not want to give sex therapy to same-sex couples say they were unfairly dismissed from their jobs.
Gary McFarlane, the relationship counselor, said he was pleased with the way Tuesday's hearing went.
"Today, for the first time, I heard somebody talking about my rights," he said. "Surely I have some rights. I am a member of society. I have some beliefs."
He called it a "tragedy" that the case had gone all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
He blamed "overzealous employers" who "would not consider reasonable accommodation" for his religious beliefs.
He never refused to treat a specific couple, raising his religious objections only in the abstract, said Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting him.
He and the other three Christians are fighting the British government, saying it failed to protect their rights.
The case could help to draw a clear boundary in cases where religious views contradict laws against discrimination. It will have implications across 47 countries on the continent. The court ruling will not be binding in Britain in the way that a Supreme Court ruling would be, but the country is legally obliged to take it into account.
The four - Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, who wanted to wear crosses; registrar Lilian Ladele; and McFarlane, the relationship counselor - have lost every round of their battles through the British legal system.
They're now making their claims under European human rights law, focusing on guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work.
Eweida, who works for British Airways, said she experienced discrimination from 2006 to 2007, when she started wearing the cross visibly and was transferred to another job. The airline has since changed its policy on uniforms to allow employees to wear religious or charity symbols.
But Chaplin, a nurse, ultimately lost her job after her employer changed its uniforms to include V-necks, which made her cross visible. Her manager asked her to remove it for fear it could lead to injury when she was working with patients, according to court papers.
Both women lost their cases in British employment tribunals.
Eweida's tribunal ruled that wearing a cross was a personal choice, not a requirement of Christianity, while Chaplin's tribunal found there were legitimate health and safety reasons to bar her from wearing the symbol around her neck.
Chaplin said Tuesday that she didn't believe it.
"The council that runs risk assessment said they have no previous cases of injury from crucifixes," she said after the hearing concluded.
Ladele and McFarlane also lost employment tribunal battles, with the tribunals finding that their employers could require them to perform their jobs.
Their employers were entitled to refuse to accommodate religious views that contradicted British laws banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, the tribunals found.
All four Christians were denied hearings further up the British legal chain, pushing their cases to the European Court in Strasbourg.
Its rulings normally take months after a case is argued.
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