This morning’s front page of the Daily Mail is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night. There is a particular kind of deliberate stupidity – a boneheaded, almost joyous, refusal to understand or engage with an argument or a set of facts – that has me spitting feathers. It is the kind of stupidity that seems to reach its purest form when the Daily Mail runs a story about the Equality Commission.
The latest example is the Mail’s fury at guidance issued by the Commission on ‘Religion or Belief in the Workplace’. I know I shouldn’t do this but I can’t stop myself. Let’s look at what the article says, and what’s wrong with it.
The guidance the Mail is complaining about has been issued by the Commission to explain some of the potential implications of the ruling in Eweida and others v United Kingdom. I’ve written quite extensively on that in the past so I won’t summarise the case here.
The Daily Mail sums up the purpose of the guidance like this:
It has been issued in the wake of the landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling that Christians may wear a cross at work
Up to a point, Lord Copper. The ECHR did not rule that Christians ‘may wear a cross at work’. Two of the cases before it concerned the wearing of a cross or crucifix, one succeeded and the other failed. However, the point the Mail is making is this:
But rather than focusing on Christian rights in the workplace – which it insists are still strictly limited – the controversial quango suggests employers should give equal respect to fringe and non-religious groups.
There is a lot wrong with that paragraph. However the central point to understand is this: just because the Eweida case was brought by Christians, that does not mean that the Court’s ruling only applies to Christians. The case was brought under Article 9 of the Convention which protects the freedom of religion and belief. It was always absolutely inevitable that whatever the Court said in Eweida would apply equally to any and all beliefs protected by Article 9. That’s how these things work.
So any guidance issued by the Equality Commission has to make it clear that the principles apply to a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs, because that happens to be true. The Commission is not extending the law here, it is just explaining it.
Of course the Mail is not just complaining that the guidance covers other religions. It’s point is that the guidance is playing down the rights of the adherents to mainstream religions and emphasising the rights of ‘fringe and non-religious groups’.
The Mail says
This could include giving believers time off to go on pilgrimages, such as druids and pagans going to Stonehenge
This is the Mail’s conclusion, not a quote from the actual guidance. Stonehenge is not mentioned anywhere in the guidance document. Pilgrimages are mentioned, but not specifically in relation to druids, pagans or any other religion. The guidance simply – and correctly – states that some religious employees may request time off to go for a pilgrimage. I suspect that if any particular group was being thought of here it was Muslims performing the Hajj – so that should make the Mail feel better.
In fact the main body of the guidance is expressed in general terms not focussing on any one kind of belief. It does mention that groups such as druids pagans and atheists are protected by the law but it is difficult to see what the objection to that can be because its, well, true. It categorically does not suggest that they are entitled to more favourable treatment than other protected groups.
Towards the end of the guidance, nine potential situations are discussed and these do use specific beliefs as an example. One of these involves a vegetarian. One involves someone with beliefs about the environment. One deals with a Jewish employee. There is also one case study dealing with a Sikh, one concerning a Muslim and one concerning a Hindu. The remaining three scenarios concern Christians. In no way does this show an undue focus on fringe beliefs.
Dealing with the vegetarian, the Mail summarises the guidance like this:
Vegetarian kitchen workers could refuse to do tasks that offend their beliefs, such handling meat [sic].
This is wrong. The example in the guidance is not concerned with ‘kitchen workers’, but with office workers who are asked to clean the office kitchen as part of their duties. The difference is crucial because it would be much harder to accommodate a vegetarian kitchen worker refusing to handle meat as part of his or her job and the guidance categorically does not suggest that employers have to do that.
The situation put forward in the guidance may seem odd but it is taken from the case of Chatwal v Wandsworth Borough Council - although that case (which I think is still ongoing) concerns a Sikh abstaining from touching meat rather than simply a highly motivated vegetarian.
So the Mail overstates the extent to which the Commission argues for the protection of ‘fringe beliefs’. What about its handling of Christian belief?
The Mail says:
But the 12-page EHRC document makes it clear that the rights of Christians in the workplace are strictly limited
It does no such thing. At no stage does the document make any statement – specific to Christianity – to the effect that rights are limited. It does of course make it clear that there are limits to the right of religious expression in the workplace - because there are. However the guidance does not suggest that the rights of Christians are more limited than the rights of others.
In support of its statement the Daily Mail says of the guidance:
It gives the example of a religious magistrate asking to be excused from dealing with cases involving the upbringing of children by gay couples. The guidance suggests it would be reasonable to refuse the request because the rights of gay couples are more important.
What the guidance actually says about that scenario is this:
The employer considers this request, but decides to reject it and requires her to carry out her work duties on the basis that the belief is incompatible with upholding the dignity and fundamental rights of same-sex couples under its equal opportunities policy
This guidance is of course directly in line with the Court’s ruling in the case of Ladele (joined to the Eweida litigation). Given the scenario, there is really no other advice that the Commission could give. Nor is the scenario an unrealistic one. It is clearly inspired by the case of McClintock v Department of Constitutional Affairs where just such an objection was made, though no discrimination was found to have taken place.
The Mail makes no mention of the fact that the nine examples include two scenarios in which a Christian’s religious expression (a nurse praying for patients and a Christian wearing a cross) should be respected. Any claim that the guidance plays down the rights of Christians at the expense of any other group is simply wrong. Not just a bit harsh. Not ‘a bit of a stretch’. Wrong.
An insult to Christians?
Possibly my favourite passage in the article is this:
The guidance is likely to be seen as an insult by some Christians and other religious observers as it appears to put lifestyle choices like vegetarianism on a par with their deeply-held spiritual beliefs.
Do you see what they did there? There is no evidence that any Christians are actually offended or regard the guidance as an insult. And of course the guidance does not put ‘lifestyle choices’ on a par with deeply held beliefs. Not all vegetarians will base that choice on a deeply held belief – and if they don’t then they won’t be protected. But some will and they may be covered by Article 9. This is no big deal. Why is it on the front page of a national newspaper?
What we have here is another manufactured outrage story. There really is nothing of substance here at all. The Equality Commission has issued a guidance document which explains the impact of Eweida for UK employers and does so by using examples drawn from a wide range of beliefs protected by Article 9. There is nothing in the guidance that is genuinely controversial. Indeed my criticism of it would be that it is all a bit bland and obvious. I don’t think it tells us anything new – but then it isn’t really supposed to.
The author of the article cannot possibly think he has presented readers with a fair and balanced summary of what the guidance says. On the contrary he has clearly distorted – with something like wild abandon – what is essentially a prosaic and not terribly important guidance document. The stupidity of the article is surely deliberate and calculated – and all the more depressing for that.