The comments were made by Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court. She said that Christians with traditional beliefs about issues such as homosexuality should be given “reasonable accommodation” in English law.
The issue of religious beliefs being upheld, or not, by English law, has caused much debate in the UK in the last couple of years following a number of cases in which British Christians lost their cases after claiming religious discrimination.
Shirley Chaplin, a nurse from Exeter, was banned from wearing a cross at work. Gary McFarlane, a former Relate counsellor, and Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar, both lost their jobs after they resisted performing tasks they said went against their religious beliefs.
Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in clerk was told the small cross she wore breached the airline’s then uniform policy. However, Miss Eweida went on to win her case, establishing the right to wear a cross in principle, but Mrs Chaplin lost her case after the court ruled that the right to express religious belief could be trumped by “health and safety” considerations.
Lady Hale called for a re-examination of the approach to religion in the law during a lecture she gave at Yale law School in the US.
”It is not difficult to see why the Christians feel that their religious beliefs are not being sufficiently respected,” she said.
“Other religions with stricter dress codes or dietary laws are demanding concessions which Christians feel that it is harder to claim because they cannot point to equivalent religious requirements.
“Eweida is something of a breakthrough here.
“But instead of all the technicalities which EU law has produced, would it not be a great deal simpler if we required the providers of employment, goods and services to make reasonable accommodation for the religious beliefs of others?”
She added: “Then employers might have to make reasonable accommodation for the right of their employees to manifest their religious beliefs and suppliers of services might have to make reasonable accommodation for the right of their would-be customers to use them.”
She cited the example of Canada where those who refuse to provide a service, such as hiring a room for a same-sex wedding must take reasonable steps to provide an alternative.
“I find it hard to believe that the hard line EU law approach to direct discrimination can be sustainable in the long run,” she said.
She added: “It is fascinating that a country with an established church can be less respectful of religious feelings than one without.”
Lord Carey spoke out in support of Lady Hale’s comments, saying: “I welcome Lady Hale’s recognition that there is a considerable problem for the courts in adjudicating around a series of competing rights.
“Her suggestion of a test of ‘reasonable accommodation’ recognises that the law and the courts have failed to balance competing rights properly.
“It remains my view that a panel of lawyers with expertise and a knowledge of religious faith is badly needed.”