A former British airlines worker was just told by a European human-rights court that she does, in fact, have the right to wear a crucifix on her neck. That such a thing would even have to go to court seems quite the sign of the times.
It comes as Brits are faced with same-sex-marriage legislation that, if passed, would likely leave churches facing lawsuits when some clerics inevitably refuse to carry out such weddings.
The decision came down on "Religious Freedom Day" here in America.
"Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose," proclaimed the White House. This, from the same White House that has been arguing in court that employers must violate their religious principles when providing insurance for their workers. This is the same White House that still offers no recourse for church-run schools and other faith-based social-service entities that object to the abortion/contraception health-insurance mandate.
Such a narrow understanding (and "understanding" is a kind way of putting it) of religious freedom ought to give us pause -- because it's not an anomaly. It's born out of conventional misunderstandings of core concepts, including freedom itself, but also equality and tolerance.
"There is no doubt that religious liberty is under serious threat in Britain, particularly for Christians," says Paul Coleman, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, which was involved with cases before the European human-rights court.
"In the language of 'equality,' 'diversity' and 'tolerance,' secularists have found a way to sideline and marginalize Christianity, successfully framing the moral beliefs of Christians as 'intolerant' or 'discriminatory' and unworthy of protection. Unless a true balance is found, where Christians can be accommodated in the public square and not shut out, we will see many more cases like the four before the ECHR in the headlines."
Three of four recent cases before the European court back up Coleman's words. A registrar was told that she didn't have the right to refuse to perform same-sex civil union ceremonies, and a counselor was told that he didn't have the right to opt out of working with a same-sex couple on their sexual problems.
Two dissenting judges voiced that in the case of the registrar, she deserved to keep her job because no one was turned away on account of her exercise of conscience --there were others there who could do the job. But the constriction of thought infects even the dissenters. The registrar's claim is a light one, they contend, because she is not operating in a clearly religious context. If a priest were the one refusing, the objection would be a much clearer case, they offered.
The situation in the U.K. could and should be a cautionary tale for us.
"Religious freedom in Britain is in an extremely weak position," Paul Diamond, one of the lawyers involved in the cases mentioned. He attributes the situation to "a combination of aggressive secularism ... and significant demographic changes." Despite the high Christian pomp of the recent royal wedding, the British are immersed in a "progressive" campaign toward pushing Judeo-Christian values from the public square, he emphasizes.
Diamond's "wakeup call" was a 2001 case he was "personally horrified" by, in which an elderly street preacher with a placard that read "Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord" was attacked by a crowd and subsequently arrested and fined for incitement. This is not what civilized people do.
These misunderstandings of words and ideas are not new, but we slouch closer toward tyranny with each one -- especially as they become more official and coercive. Diamond is hopeful for Americans, citing our "robust" commitment to that which has made us exceptional. This last election indicates there are miles to go if we are going to meet his admiring expectations.