Despite Christianity being the largest religion in the UK, a recent study shows that many Christians still face discrimination in the workplace. It’s time for the Church to stand up, says Andrea Williams
When I qualified as a barrister in 1988, I never dreamed that I would one day be regularly representing Christians in court who had been discriminated against because of their faith. Yet this is what happens in the UK on a weekly basis.
At the Christian Legal Centre - the sister organisation of Christian Concern - we receive around 1,000 enquiries every year from Christians who are experiencing some form of discrimination at work. Many of these just want advice or help; only a very few end up in court or capture the interest of the media.
But that doesn’t mean that many more don’t face, or feel, discriminated against, as a recent study on the experiences of UK Christians at work has highlighted. The report by Pearn Kandola found that 82 per cent of Christians who wear religious symbols chose not to do so at work.
Some Christians reported being ridiculed in the workplace because of their beliefs and 48 per cent said that their employer could do more to ensure staff felt comfortable wearing religious dress or symbols.
The right to wear a cross
In 2006, Nadia Eweida was sent home from work, without pay, by British Airways - for refusing to take off or conceal the small cross that she wore around her neck. Sikh men who worked at British Airways were allowed to wear turbans and bracelets, and Muslim women were allowed to wear headscarves, but Nadia could not wear her cross.
The Christian Legal Centre assisted Nadia in bringing a discrimination case against the airline. After the British Court of Appeal ruled against her, she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Astonishingly, the British government argued that wearing a cross was not a protected religious manifestation of the Christian faith, or a Christian symbol.
It eventually took a former communist Polish judge to recognise that it is for many Christians. Finally, in 2013, Nadia won her case.
One step forward
Nearly a decade on, Nadia’s fight forms the background to one of the highest profile cases that the Christian Legal Centre took on in 2022. Nurse Mary Onuoha was forced out of her job as an NHS theatre practitioner at Croydon University Hospital for wearing a small confirmation cross at work. Despite having worked there for 19 years, she was subjected to harassment and intimidation by managers who, at one point, even interrupted surgery to complain about her cross.
As we enter this new year, we need to show the world what God is like. And we can’t do that by hiding our Christian beliefs
We helped her bring a case against the NHS trust and, in January 2022, the employment tribunal ruled that she had been harassed and discriminated against. This time there was no debate about whether wearing a cross was a genuine manifestation of the Christian faith.
In another case, a Marie Curie hospice chaplian was told by a Methodist minister that he should remove a half-inch cross pin from his jumper. Derek Timms was told that wearing the cross might “offend” or create “barriers” with patients, despite having worn it for the past four years without any complaints. After we helped him to write a letter to Marie Curie, he received an unreserved apology and was told he was free to wear his cross.
Free but afraid
These two cases demonstrate that Christians are certainly free to wear a cross at work, should they choose to do so.
Sadly, as the report indicates, Christians are feeling cowed. Too many of us avoid manifesting our Christian faith in the workplace. What our cases show is that we shouldn’t be cowed at all. There is strong legal protection for Christians who express their faith in the workplace. We should not be ashamed of the gospel and all that it means for every aspect of life.
But demonstrating our Christian faith is not just about wearing a cross. It is also about speaking the truth about issues that come up - defending biblical marriage, speaking up for the unborn and telling the truth about moral issues. The Christian Legal Centre have successfully defended Christians who have manifested their faith in these ways too.
A call to action
When I first started taking on legal cases for Christians who had experienced discrimination, I thought the Church would wake up and say: “Enough! This shouldn’t be happening!”. Instead, it has largely been silent. It’s almost as if we don’t want to recognise the problem.
But if you are a church leader, I guarantee that there are Christians in your church who are struggling to know how to express their faith in their workplace – or whether they can or should at all!
There is strong legal protection for Christians who express their faith in the workplace. We should not be ashamed of the gospel
At Christmas time, we remember how our glorious saviour took on flesh in human form to be born in a manger. His name is Emmanuel – God with us. He showed us what God is like. And then he passed on that responsibility to us. As we enter this new year, we need to show the world what God is like. And we can’t do that by remaining silent and hiding our Christian beliefs.
It’s time for the Church to rise up with a new boldness and a confidence in the gospel. Jesus commissioned us to be his witnesses. We at the Christian Legal Centre are here, and we are ready to support any Christian who runs into problems when expressing their faith.
As our caseload grows, so does our team. We pray that our legal wins will help embolden the Church to confidently proclaim the love and forgiveness on offer from our glorious saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, this new year and always.