As it happens, I met the good lady, by chance, on a crowded train in south-west London. I had a long conversation with my constituent, and I can confirm that she is neither a religious nutter nor driven by vindictiveness. She just wants the airline to accept that it was unfair and wrong, and the irony is that she has now been driven to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. And the further irony is that the British Government — a British Government whose individual members, if asked, would almost certainly agree that BA was loony in its decision — is now apparently backing that decision and opposing Mrs Eweida.
Ministers will argue, in Strasbourg, that BA was perfectly within its rights to kick her out of the workplace, because there is nothing in the “rules” of Christian observance that says you have to wear a cross. They will argue that wearing a cross is “optional”, and therefore unlike wearing other items of apparel (headgear, bracelets, etc) that other religions demand of their adherents and which are therefore permissible for BA staff.
I don’t know the process by which government lawyers have decided this is the right way to go, but someone needs to march into their room, grab them by the lapels, and tell them not to be such confounded idiots. They appear to be following the 2010 Court of Appeal ruling of Lord Justice Stephen Sedley, who threw out Mrs Eweida’s case for discrimination and accused her of having a “sectarian agenda”.
Sedley is a very clever man, and a distinguished jurist, but I don’t think he would object if I called him the most Left-wing judge of the past 50 years. You should read his judgment, as a perfect example of how a brilliant mind, in the grip of strong ideological prejudice, can depart completely from common sense.
His first point, as I say, is that Christianity does not demand that its followers wear crosses — in the way that, say, Sikhism demands turbans — and that Mrs Eweida was therefore not discriminated against, and suffered no disadvantage, simply for being a Christian. Sedley makes much of this distinction between “optional” and “compulsory” bits of religious clothing or apparel, and you can see why it might be convenient for employers like BA.
Mrs Eweida might argue that her deep personal convictions drive her to wear a cross; and another female employee might argue that her deep personal convictions drive her to wear a burka. How could BA forbid one but not the other? What if a member of cabin crew turned up insisting (as many Britons do) that she believed in the Jedi order, and that her personal convictions demanded that she dress as Princess Leia? This objection may sound logical enough; and yet it flies in the face of common sense. There is surely a world of difference between discarding a uniform, in favour of a burka or a Princess Leia outfit, and wearing a small cross on a virtually invisible chain.
The airline was neither reasonable nor proportionate in its first response — as was shown by its subsequent capitulation — and the Appeal Court could have recognised that.
Sedley’s second point is that no other Christians, in BA’s entire 30,000 staff, protested in the same way, or insisted on wearing a cross, and that there was therefore no evidence that Christians were disadvantaged as a group. That may or may not be true. But if it is true that Mrs Eweida was on her own in wanting to wear a crucifix, then that surely shows she was not the thin end of the wedge, and that allowing her to wear a cross would have been a reasonable and harmless indulgence, rather than a general invitation to others to break the rules on uniform.
Mrs Eweida is a member of a group — Christians — and she wanted to express her membership of that group in a small and inoffensive way. She was suspended and sent home. She was told she could not have contact with the public. She was discriminated against. She did suffer disadvantage. It is plain as a pikestaff. Government lawyers should run up the white flag now. Never mind Strasbourg: it is time for some common sense.