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European Court to decide if Christians can wear a cross at work

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The Government is set to argue that Christians do not have the right to wear a cross or crucifix openly at work, in a landmark discrimination court case which will be heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

The case will seek to establish the human rights of two British women to display the cross, while the government will argue that because the Christian faith does not 'require' them to wear the cross, it does not fall under the remit of human rights.

The two women took their fight to the European Court last year after both faced disciplinary action for wearing a cross at work. One of them had lost an earlier employment tribunal decision at the Court of Appeal and was also refused permission to go to the Supreme Court.

This is the first time that the Government has been forced to state whether it backs the rights of Christians to wear the symbol at work, the Sunday Telegraph reported. It comes soon after it was criticized for plans to legalize same-sex marriages.

Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin claim that they were discriminated against when their employers barred them from wearing the symbol.

Eweida, 61, a check-in worker at London's Heathrow Airport, said she was suspended in 2006 for refusing to take off the cross, which her employers claimed breached British Airways' (BA) uniform code.

According to BA, items such as Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs (headscarves), and bangles can be worn "as it is not practical for staff to conceal them beneath their uniforms."

The other woman, Chaplin, 56, was barred from working on hospital wards by the Royal Devon and Exeter national hospital Trust after she refused to hide the cross she wore on a necklace chain, ending 31 years of nursing.

Lawyers for the two women claim that the government is setting the bar too high. They say that Christians are given less protection than members of other religions who have been granted special status for their religious garments or symbols.

The government's position received an angry response from Christian groups who called it "extraordinary."

Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, accused ministers and the courts of "dictating" to Christians and said it was another example of Christianity becoming sidelined in official life.

"The reasoning is based on a wholly inappropriate judgment of matters of theology and worship about which they can claim no expertise," he said.

Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, said it is extraordinary that a Conservative government should argue that the wearing of a cross is not a generally recognized practice of the Christian faith.

"In recent months the courts have refused to recognize the wearing of a cross, belief in marriage between a man and a woman, and Sundays as a day of worship, as core expressions of the Christian faith. What next? Will our courts overrule the Ten Commandments?" Williams said.

The European court judges will next decide whether the cases will progress to full hearings. If they do, the cases will test how religious rights are balanced against equality laws designed to prohibit discrimination, the Sunday Telegraph said.

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