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A right to wear the cross? Nearly, but not quite

There is no ‘ban’ on wearing crosses at work in Britain, and 99.9% of employers large and small are happy enough to allow employees to do so. Let’s make that clear right from the outset.

Nor is this country in the grip of a generalised witch hunt against those that wish to draw attention to their Christianity this manner. Despite the immense publicity accorded to Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, these are the only two known cases in which the issue has even arisen.

Yet this is not the impression given by some of the more excitable coverage of the European Court of Human Rights case launched by these two women against the government, in which they seek an affirmation that they enjoy the positive right to display religious symbolism.

Double standards on the question of visible signifiers of a belief system are pervasive. But despite being a secular leftist of the type excoriated by Baroness Warsi, I do not have a problem with the practice as such. Nor should anybody with a serious commitment to the freedom to follow any religion or none.

After all, Muslim head coverings, Sikh turbans and yarmulkes are commonplace. Any employer that unreasonably discriminated against such garments could rightly expect to end up in front of a tribunal.

I know of a chief executive of a prominent company who displays a fish-shaped lapel badge, popular among evangelicals, and the head of a trade association who sports a ring that indicates Masonic affiliations. In as far as I have professional dealings with either of these men, all of this is by the by.

Yet what is and is not acceptable is largely governed by convention rather than law. No City firm would have allowed pierced noses 20 years ago; today, many younger employees mutilate their nostrils in this fashion.

The point of upholding the separation of church and state is that this is the best means of upholding the freedom to practice religion.

Given the accommodation extended in instances like those I cite above, Christians are entitled to a level playing field. I’m happy enough with a generalised social presumption in favour of discrete religious jewellery.

British Airways –  well-known as an anti-union employer, incidentally – seems to me to have been heavy-handed in its treatment of Ms Eweida.

Yet what cannot be forgotten is that certain forms of attire are simply not suitable for particular jobs. Ms Chaplain’s bosses say that front line nurses are banned from wearing necklaces of any description, lest patients try to grab at them.

Whether or not objections like that are defensible can only be established on a case by case basis. But being clad in a burqa is an obvious no-go if you want to be a firefighter.

In this case, the Coalition’s decision to contest the action bought by Eweida and Chaplin is the correct one. While tolerance should be maximal, there are ultimately practical limits.

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