As you can read here, the government have said that Christians have no right to wear a cross necklace in the workplace. What are we to think of this? Does this stance marginalise Christians? Or does it instead ensure that Christians aren't needlessly privileged? And linking this in to our recent look at whether religion should be separated from public life, how are we to view the matter in regards to the values of a “healthy secularism”?
I must confess that my own initial response to the news was anger and a sense of injustice. I thought the government were quite clearly in the wrong. However having chewed on it a little more I recognise that the matter is actually quite a bit more complicated than that. Of course I wasn't alone in reacting with outrage; many Christians feel at threat of being increasingly marginalised, and it's easy to read this piece of news as further confirmation of that taking place.1 But as we saw when we explored the nature of a healthy secularism, it is wrong to automatically agree with any stance that could restrict religious expression and it is equally wrong to automatically disagree. We need to stop and have a good think about what the position under question could do to maintain or disrupt the balance between freedom and impartiality.
Let's first of all recognise what isn't the government's position. Their position is not that Christians should be legally banned from wearing a cross at work. We need to be careful to be clear on that because it is easy to misread the claim. Sometimes when we say that somebody doesn't have the right to do something we mean that what they are doing ought to be utterly forbidden. “You do not have the right to take an innocent life!” we might say, and by that we mean that taking an innocent life is always out of the question. But imagine I'm at the dinner table with my kids (in some alternate universe) and they are refusing to eat my delicious shepherd's pie but are still demanding their strawberry ice-cream for pudding. As a responsible parent who wants them to eat a nutritious meal and teach them that they can't always get what they want, I refuse their demands. They then really kick up a fuss about it, screaming and wailing. But I say to them, “sorry, you do not have a right to eat strawberry ice-cream.” In this instance, I am not saying that eating strawberry ice-cream is something really beyond the pale that no-one decent human being should ever do. Rather I'm saying that eating strawberry ice-cream is a privilege and that nothing essential to one's dignity as a human being depends on having it. It is something that you can be denied access to without suffering any great violation of your worth, value, or freedom.2
It is in this second sense that the government are making the claim that Christians have no right to wear a cross in the work-place. The claim is that wearing a cross necklace is a privilege, not something fundamentally owed to you. I think that this is roughly correct and on track. It is hard to compare this matter with, say, the importance of a person's right for food and shelter and we ought to be wary of the tendency to selfishly cheapen the notion of what counts under one's rights. However, things are still not that clear cut.
We all seem to accept that it is one's right to be able to believe whatever one wants and live one's life in accordance with those beliefs. If those beliefs happen to be religious, then one has the right to at least some degree of religious expression. The problem is in determining exactly how much of one's religious expression is owed one by their rights, and how much could be legitimately restricted if good reason called for it.
Consider that if I was so inclined I could “express my faith” in a multitude of ways that I currently don't. I could print and wear shirts that say “Jesus luvs me”, I could paint crosses on lamp-posts, I could swap the bog roll in my house for one with Bible verses printed on it, and so on. Now these would all be expressions of my faith but they're surely not expressions that I'm entitled to. If I turned up to work in my “Jesus luvs me” t-shirt and got sent home for not being in office dress, I wouldn't really have any basis to make a complaint. Forbidding me to wear that doesn't seem to violate my rights. But there are ways that I express my faith which if denied me would be an offence against these rights. For instance, if I could be forbidden from attending church, that would really hit me near the centre of my religious convictions. That would certainly be risking my rights to religious expression.
Where exactly the line between one's deep religious expressions and one's peripheral expressions is will certainly be hard to find. But it is upon this line that the matter hangs. It is for this reason that counter-arguments should not be about Christians having the right to wear religious symbols because group Y over there have been given the right (or because they seem to have been given the right). The obvious elephant in the room is the Muslim hijab. If Muslim women have the right to wear hijab, then shouldn't Christians have the right to wear a cross necklace? It isn't that simple. If the wearing of the hijab is part of a Muslim's deep religious expression, but the wearing of a cross necklace is only a periphery religious expression for a Christian, then it could very well be that the Muslim has the right to wear a religious symbol like that but the Christian does not. So long as the principles of deep versus periphery are being applied to both, then that outcome would be fair.
That it is hard to find the line between deep and periphery is evident in that it isn't simply a matter of seeing what one group's holy text says. Perhaps the Koran doesn't command the wearing of the hijab, but one could also make the case that the Bible doesn't command going to church. Now I think that if one reads and understands their Bibles properly then one will see that Jesus and the New Testament authors did very much emphasise the importance of these religious communities, but if you're looking for a simple “thou must go to church” then you won't find it. Moreover, a healthy secularism is aware that it isn't just religion that's in view. What about non-religious or anti-religious commitments? What about the atheist who wants to wear a Darwin fish necklace? We have no holy text to go to for her. What this shows is that the distinction is largely down to personal conscience.
For this reason I'm quite uneasy that the government seems to think it has the authority to declare what is and isn't a “requirement of the faith”. Now I do agree with them that wearing the cross necklace is nothing Christianly vital, and I reckon that most Christians, if they think about it, probably wouldn't class wearing a cross necklace as part of their deep faith expressions. But there may very well be Christians who don't think this. There may very well be Christians for whom the wearing of this symbol is incredibly precious. I'd think their value in the object would be misplaced but the point is, what gives me the authority to decide that for them? What gives the government the authority to decide that for them? These matters require a method for deciding them on a case-by-case basis. Wearing a cross necklace probably isn't a right for most Christians but it may be for some. How exactly we could accommodate for such a case-by-case basis I'm not sure, but I'm certain that we can't simply apply one absolute principle to all Christians. This, then, is one area where I'm concerned about the government's method.
Still, I've granted that most Christians probably do not have a right to wear a cross necklace to work. And I've explained already, this is not the same as saying that Christians shouldn't wear the cross necklace to work. It just means that in principle there could be legitimate circumstances in which the Christian can reasonably be asked by their employer not to. An obvious example would be when, due to the nature of the work, an employer asks the necklace to be removed for health and safety reasons.
Sadly I foresee that many employers will ban the wearing of the necklace for less than adequate reasons simply because of widespread misunderstandings about and harmful attitudes towards religion and public life. I suspect that some employers will ban it through a desire to appear religiously neutral, however in doing so they will only be adopting the misreading of neutrality which is associated with a contaminated secularism. If they were to really apply this misreading consistently they'd have to ban the radio at work, which always presents particular worldviews through songs and radio presenters, as well as forbid near enough any non-work related conversation. Others will ban it simply because they fear that their customers won't like seeing it, thus pandering to the crowd who think that freedom of conscience entails that nobody can express their views around them if they don't like it. The irony of this stance is that their view that nobody should have any beliefs they don't like anywhere near them is one they'd like to force on the rest of us. It is this sort of abuse by employers that the government should try and pro-actively prevent, if only through educational means.
To conclude, I'd contend that this news is a bit of a mixed bag. While the government are basically correct that Christians don't have a right to wear a cross necklace in the work place, we should be very cautious in applying this to every Christian. We need to be more sensitive to the fact that we are dealing with matters of personal conscience primarily. Additionally the government's position probably will lead to unnecessary marginalisation of Christians by employers, but the solution is not to overturn their decision, but to foster healthier attitudes within our country toward religion and public life.
1 Premier Christian Media recently issued a “Report On The Marginalisation of Christianity in British Public life 2007-2011” in which 66% of Christians surveyed felt that Christians received more negative discrimination than people of other faiths. A further 20% felt that people of all faiths received negative discrimination.
2 The notion that human beings have these things called 'rights' is itself philosophically problematic (What exactly is it about humans which supposedly generate these rights?) but I've chosen here to just run with that language for the sake of sticking to the main point.