The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday ruled religious beliefs cannot justify discrimination against same-sex couples.
The tribunal in Strasbourg, France, ruled against two British Christians who claimed their employers unfairly discriminated against them because of their opposition to relationship recognition for gays and lesbians and homosexuality.
Registrar Lillian Ladele claimed the Borough of Islington outside London unfairly disciplined her because she refused to officiate civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples after the United Kingdom’s civil partnership law took effect in 2005. Gary McFarlane accused the Relate Federation, an English counseling service, of firing him in 2008 because he said he may object to providing sex therapy to gay and lesbian couples because of his religious-based opposition to homosexuality.
“We welcome the ECHR’s ruling,” Relate Chief Executive Ruth Sutherland said in a statement. “We believe that it is further endorsement that Relate acted in an appropriate manner and fully in compliance with the law in the case regarding Gary McFarlane. The ruling supports our view that Relate acted properly and that it was Mr. McFarlane who was in breach of his agreed terms and conditions of employment. For Relate, this case has always been about protecting the right that every Relate client has to impartial, unbiased and empathetic counseling and sex therapy in line with our charitable aims.”
The court also ruled against a nurse who claimed she lost her job at an English hospital because she refused to remove her necklace with a cross. British Airways employee Nadia Eweida received €32,000 in damages after the airline suspended her for wearing a cross necklace to work.
“Today’s judgment is an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, a British human rights group, said in a statement. “Nadia Eweida wasn’t hurting anyone and was perfectly capable of doing her job whilst wearing a small cross. She had just as much a right to express her faith as a Sikh man in a turban or a Muslim woman with a headscarf.”
The Religion News Service reported that Alliance Defending Freedom, an American anti-gay organization, said “Christian employees should not be singled out for discrimination,” but categorized the court’s decision to reject the other three cases as “extremely disappointing.”
LGBT rights advocates in the U.K. and across Europe quickly applauded the decision.
“With this ruling, the court has established that freedom of religion is an individual right,” Sophie in ‘t Veld, vice-president of the European Parliament’s LGBT Intergroup, said in a statement. “It is emphatically not a collective right to discriminate against LGBT people, women, or people of another faith or life stance. Religious freedom is no ground for exemption from the law. The court showed conclusively that the principle of equality and equal treatment cannot be circumvented with a simple reference to religion.”
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the British LGBT advocacy group Stonewall, agreed.
“Today’s judgment rightly confirms that it’s completely unacceptable in 2013 for public servants to pick and choose who they want to serve on the basis of sexual orientation,” he said. “Gay people contribute over £40 billion annually to the cost of public services in this country. They’re entitled to nothing less than equal treatment from those services, even from public servants who don’t happen to like gay people.”
The court’s ruling coincides with the expected introduction of a bill in the British Parliament in the coming weeks that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in England and Wales. Scottish lawmakers are expected to consider a similar measure this year.
French legislators on Jan. 29 will begin to debate a proposal that would extend marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples in France. More than 350,000 people marched through the streets of Paris on Sunday in opposition to the bill.
COC Netherlands, a Dutch LGBT advocacy group, said the European Court of Human Rights’ decision “clears the way” to repeal the exemption to the country’s 2001 same-sex marriage law that allows civil servants to refuse to marry gays and lesbians.
“Now that even the European Court rules against civil servants that refuse to marry gay couples, the way to ending this phenomenon in the Netherlands has been cleared,” COC Netherlands President Tanja Ineke told the Washington Blade. “We call on the Dutch government to take measures to end this phenomenon immediately and put an end to this long lasting debate.”
Tamás Dombos of the Hungarian LGBT advocacy group Háttér noted to the Blade that the Constitutional Court of Hungary has ruled registrars cannot legally discriminate against couples based on their sexual orientation. The country’s domestic partnership law took effect in 2009, but a new constitution with an amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman took effect last January.
“We welcome the decision, although the reasoning of the court is quite moderate claiming that national authorities have the power to settle the clash between the two competing claims (non-discrimination and freedom of religion,)” Dombos said in reference to the European Court of Human Rights decision. “So it is questionable whether the decision can be used later to fight national decision that prioritize religious freedom instead.”