Pots, Kettles and Discrimination

An interesting discussion transpired on Twitter this morning (sadly a very poor medium for serious discussion) about this BBC article. In it a group of bishops are complaining that the government discriminates against Christians. Specifically they are talking about people losing their jobs for wearing crucifixes.

As someone who has suffered employment discrimination (there is a good reason why I’m self-employed, you know), I’m fully supportive of anyone who is at risk of losing their job simply for wearing a religious symbol. So score one for the bishops there. However, like many things in life, this issue is a little more complicated.

To start with, losing your job for wearing a crucifix is not the only sort of discrimination that the bishops complain about. The “rights” that they want protected include the “right” to discriminate against, and spread hatred towards, other people; specifically LGBT people. Indeed, Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords have been in the forefront of every fight to prevent LGBT people gaining civil rights in the UK. Trans people, in particular, had to go to the European Court because there was no chance of their getting any rights in the UK without support from elsewhere. So while I feel very sorry for Christians at risk of losing their jobs simply for wearing religious jewelry, I think it is a bit rich for some bishops to complain about being discriminated against on the one hand, while pushing hard for the right to discriminate on the other.

There are, of course, many Christians who are wonderful people. I have a good friend who is a Catholic Priest, another who is a Methodist Minister, and one who is training to be a CofE vicar. They are not the sort of people who go around persecuting others. Unfortunately they get tarred by the bad behavior of other Christians. And that brings me to the thorny subject of symbols.

Symbols, religious or otherwise, are powerful things. They can convey a great deal of information, and a great deal of emotion, very effectively. I’m trying not to invoke Godwin’s Law here, so apologies to any Jewish friends who may feel left out, but let’s use the Confederate flag as an example.

I very much doubt that the people behind the Somerset Rebels speedway team had any political reason for the name and symbol they chose. For most people in Somerset the Confederate army has the vaguely romantic overtones of the underdog. Their generals tended to be more likable than Grant and Sherman. But to an African-American the Confederate flag means something very different and specific. It suggests that the person wearing it is proclaiming his racist views, and his hatred for African-American people. It suggests that because there are people who use it in that very way.

The same sort of confusion, these days, is true of a crucifix. A person who chooses to wear one may well think that doing so sends out a message of, “I believe in Jesus Christ and His gospel of love.” Unfortunately an LGBT person seeing that crucifix may interpret the message very differently as saying to her, “I hate you and wish you dead.”

This is where the whole issue gets very difficult. Imagine yourself in the position of an openly gay person who is seriously ill. Fortunately you are in the UK and are able to go to hospital. But once there you discover that one of the nurses wears a crucifix. Are you going to be comforted, or very frightened?

There are no easy answers to this. There are, however, things that we can do. Those of us who are not religious need to be supportive of the moderates in various religions who are prepared to stand up against the bigots. Equally, religious people who want our support have to be prepared to take a stand. They also need to be aware that their holy symbol may be a symbol of fear for others.

24 thoughts on “Pots, Kettles and Discrimination

  1. Well said. I’ve got a lot of appreciation for the basic principles that inform most religions: be nice, be loving, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, be a peacemaker, comfort the grieving, all that stuff.

    I find it not only a pity, but offensive to all of my religious friends who believe living their religion means doing the above, that for assorted hierarchies and preachers it all seems to come down to who you are fucking and with what organ.

  2. I can’t argue with that. I think in order to deserve continued existence, my people have to sort their own house out. Which doesn’t stop me from being annoyed at the fascist type of atheism.

  3. There are multiple issues here. The most unfortunate one, and hardest to overcome is the negative view. As you say, many crucifix wearers may be good people but the paranoid assumption is that they are bigots. I bet that a significant proportion just think it looks nice, and the ones who ‘want to kill’ you are a minority.

    Consider this: some black people have mugged strangers, so if I were to treat every black person I meet as a mugger you would rightly condemn that. Yet those who call people like me homophobic bigots because some loud mouthed so-called Christians are that way don’t get your criticism.

  4. That would be a good analogy, Kev, if important leaders of the black community were loud in their support of the moral need for strangers to be mugged. But they aren’t. Cheryl isn’t talking about random Christians in the street but bishops.

  5. One doesn’t have a choice about the colour of one’s skin. Being black is not an optional statement.

    Wearing religious jewellery is .. and regrettably the symbol of the cross is increasingly coming to have far more negative associations than positive ones.

  6. Perhaps I am not understanding this issue, but to me there is a significant difference between wearing a cross and wearing a crucifix. Are these conflated in the UK? Wearing a cross is a religious symbol that has negative connotations for me but which I do not find offensive. Wearing the figure of a crucified person- a crucifix, is offensive to me and frightening. I don’t want to have to stare at a person being tortured while receiving public services or in my workplace. What people have at home, if legal, is their own decision

  7. All this seems to me to only strengthen the argument to allow people to wear their crosses or crucifixes. If Christianity only gets mentioned when someone is telling people that they are evil and will burn in hell, that becomes representative of all of Christianity. If there are decent and tolerant Christians around too, they need to be allowed to be visibly Christian while being decent and tolerant, if they choose, to help counteract the negatives.

    Sure, they should be aware that their religious symbol may make people wary, and keep that in mind when making a choice about whether to display it. But all the more reason why it should be out in the open for an honest discussion.

    (Before anyone jumps to any conclusions about my religion, I’m a non-fundamentalist atheist, and very glad that most of my fellow USians have never even heard of Richard Dawkins, who is way outside his area of expertise when giving his allegedly scientific perspective on religion.)

  8. Petrea I’m glad someone else shares my opinion of Dawkins.

    David, fair point my analogy was flawed but there are leaders of most communities who espouse hateful views not shared by those loosely affiliated to the community. Not all Muslims are terrorists not all Christians are homophobic.

    Christine, I don’t think that’s relevant. I was talking about the choice of the viewer not the viewed.
    Are you saying I shouldn’t wear a cross because someone else wears one and holds offensive views? Shall I grow my hair because a shaved head used to be the badge of nazi thugs?

    G, the image of Jesus on the cross is not a symbol of torture, its a symbol of self-sacrifice to help others, and a symbol of overcoming wrongs.

  9. Kev- from the story as I have read it, a large number of people, of whom Jesus would have been one, were crucified in a terrible, long and painful death, against their wills. Not a pleasant symbol to me and one I don’t want to have to look at while in non-private places. I feel the same way about burkhas: not while performing public services.
    I’m still not understanding whether this is an issue with wearing a crucifix or a cross?
    In European news, the supreme court in Italy, not a very independent organ, also states that children in public schools cannot be forced to stare at crucifixes in the classroom.

  10. This is beautifully written, Cheryl. I know my grandparents had made some pretty negative associations with any form of the cross (cross, crucifix, etc) because of how it was used/displayed in Nazi Germany – hardly a surprise for Jews in Poland.

    I also think the argument (from commenters) that if only the haters wear the symbol, it becomes a symbol of hatred is a pretty fair statement.

    Wearing the symbol – of Christianity, of Islam, of whatever – while actually following the precepts of that belief (instead of using it as blunt weapon to further one’s hatred/paranoia) is vital to keeping the symbol from being forever changed. The Indian Wheel of Life symbol is one such that in the western world is going to be a LONG time before it’s usable without the stink of what was done to it in the 1930’s and ’40’s.

    Supporting the moderates, of any stripe, is important – especially for those of us on the outside.

  11. I don’t want to express an opinion yet because I need to think about this, but it seems that just as much as people performing public services may want to avoid expressions of their religious belief while on the job, so too we need Christians who are not bigots to make themselves visible, both to make it clear that there are some Christians who can be trusted and to make it even more clear to conservative Christians that there are morally thoughtful people who do not agree with their homophobic (and other objectionable) views.

    I am neither a Christian or an atheist, although I been in a position to make fear-driven assumptions about people wearing crosses or crucifixes, even though I know there are Christians who would not hate someone like me.

  12. My own thought is that much depends upon how the wearer of any given religious symbol intends to use that symbol. If it is as an ever present reminder of their own faith then that is fine, as would be the intention to identify the wearer to fellow members of the faith. Who could quarrel with that?

    If the symbol of the cross weren’t so omnipresent as an item of jewelry then I suppose that they’d be less of an opportunity for confusion ..He/She is wearing a Cross and So it must mean something ,and maybe even be an invitation to debate the Meaning Of It All.

    Dunno how you’d debate the Meaning Of It All on Twitter.

    I have no quarrel with there being Bishops and similar ranked Clergy of other faiths and of those prelates freely expressing their views in non-violent debate but I do sway toward the American political view that .. as I understand it .. Church and State should be separated. The sooner our House Of Lords is transformed into an elected Senate with no automatic presence of the Bishopric .. I’m straining for the correct term here .. the better.

    Mind you I will say that I find Evangelical Atheists every bit as repellent as I do Evangelical Christians and this despite recent manifestations of Christian Enthusiasm in British State funded ‘faith’ schools. For example …


    Yes, I know .. ‘ The Daily Mail ‘ .. but it was the first substantive reference that I could find quickly by google to an event that happened in my locality ..

    “Leading scientists have launched an unprecedented attack on the teaching of creationist theories in Tony Blair’s flagship academies.
    Britain’s most prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, said children were being confused by the teaching of the Bible’s creation story in science lessons.
    It follows a recent revival in creationist thinking, most notably in three schools supported by multi-millionaire car dealer and evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy.
    The schools – a city technology college and two city academies – are allowed to stray from the national curriculum under Labour’s controversial scheme to give schools more autonomy if they win private backing.
    In a statement issued today, the Royal Society defends Darwin’s theory of evolution as the best explanation for life on earth.
    It accuses the Government of failing in its duty to ensure pupils at state schools, including the academies, learn the value of genuine science. ”

    In essence, and at risk of error in detail, what happened was that students a local ‘ Faith School ‘ were given a standard biology lesson on Theory of Evolution at the end of which the Teacher, who had adhered to the the National Curriculum throughout his lesson, slammed a Bible down on his desk and declared that whilst he was obliged to teach what he had taught THIS was what he BELIEVED ! And then proceeded to spout Creationism as revealed Truth.

    Incidentally, and out of a spirit of Genuine curiosity .. why do so many American Politicians of both the Democratic and the Republican persuasion wear a Symbol Of Faith, to wit a tiny American Flag, on their lapels? Couldn’t this symbol be said to cause offense in some situations? British Politicians don’t wear tiny Union Flags on their lapels … for fear that we’d laugh at them? I fear that I really don’t understand American politics and its symbology despite my having watched every episode of The West Wing.

    1. Incidentally, and out of a spirit of Genuine curiosity .. why do so many American Politicians of both the Democratic and the Republican persuasion wear a Symbol Of Faith, to wit a tiny American Flag, on their lapels?

      Oh, that’s easy: If they don’t, their opponents will accuse them of being anti-American and they won’t get elected. Pretty straightforward, really.

      1. As they wouldn’t if they didn’t say they were Christians.

        Personally, I don’t wear crosses even when they are jewellery, because I would be appropriating a symbol that has a meaning. But I think the sacking of that woman over the crucifix was stupid and unfair.

  13. Anna, the nurse in question Shirley Chaplin hasn’t been sacked. She was told that wearing a necklace was inappropriate in her role just as I am not supposed to wear a tie for safety reasons. She refused and so was offered alternative roles where the risk of being throttled by her chain was no longer an issue.
    Each NHS trust has its own policies, our staff are not supposed to wear jewelry or wristwatches under infection control guidelines. This seems to me to be a deliberate challenge sponsored by fundamental groups rather than a genuine human rights issue.

    1. I had assumed this was still the BA employee. Which was slightly different, but Hal’s extremely persuasive post has made me consider things in a new light.

      When I worked for my old employer, at one point I asked if I could object on conscientious grounds to helping draft a presentation for a weapons firm. My staff leader laughed until rolling on the floor.

  14. Seems to me that Chaplin and the bishops need to show that other staff are allowed to wear necklaces while carrying out the same role, or there’s no discrimination here whatsoever. The trust in question is saying this is simply a matter of “agreed uniform policy and the safety of staff and patients,” exactly as kev suggests.

    Even if the trust *were* prohibiting the cross as a symbol of religious faith, I’m not sure there’s a strong human rights argument here, as wearing it is not a requirement within the faith, like wearing the turban in the Sikh faith or similar prescriptions as regards other religions. It’s an outward expression of personal belief that is discretionary on the part of the believer. As such it constitutes a communication of — maybe even of an advertisement for — those beliefs. The trust would, I presume, frown on staff handing out pamphlets advertising such beliefs, or evangelising to patients directly, urging them to pray, read the Bible, etc.. The question is, to what extent are they entitled to extend that policy to dress code?

    I tend to think an employer is within their rights to say that such tacit physical expressions are inappropriate in a customer-facing role. If it were an inverted cross, they’d be entitled to ask the wearer to remove it, to avoid offending Christians. If it were a symbol of even a mainstream political party — Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems — it still seems fair to me for the employer to say, this does not belong in the workplace. Whether it was as brash as a slogan t-shirt saying, “Jesus was a lesbian,” or as subtle as a badge with a Union Jack, a St. George’s Cross or a St. Andrew’s Cross, the customer-facing employee is representing their employer, and that employer has a right, I’d say, to veto symbols of allegiance, not least where such allegiance carries a suggestion of *opposition* to beliefs that may well be held by customers. I’d even go so far as to say that this sort of policy would equally apply to, say, a pink triangle badge as an expression of gay rights advocacy. If I believe passionately that such advocacy is crucial, an employer still has the right to tell me, not when you’re representing us.

    I’m not someone who’s easily offended or even discomfited by such symbols, but for all the tolerant strains of Christianity out there and all the profoundly ethical Christians that subscribe to them, the liberalising reformations of Christianity are far from universal. At its historical core and in its mainstream expressions — in Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and many if not most strains of Protestantism — Christianity retains, on the whole, a deep-rooted ideological opposition to homosexuality. I see a cross and it may not trouble me, I may even prefer to assume the individual is actually wholly tolerant, but this is despite a symbol which says to me, “I disapprove of your sexuality; I subscribe to a belief system which condemns your actions as sin.”

    So this message is… unwelcome to say the least. I don’t see how a Christian has the right to express that message, albeit tacitly, in a physical symbol, any more than a Northern Irish Unionist has the right to wear a badge with the Red hand of Ulster on it when they’re dealing with Catholic patients. I don’t know that I’d argue for a veto of such symbols on principle, across the NHS, but I’d certainly support a trust which instituted such a policy as having the right to make that call on how their employees present themselves to patients.

    1. This is a bit of a tangent, but it’s interesting that we “tend to think an employer is within their rights to say that such tacit physical expressions are inappropriate in a customer-facing role.” There’s something very industrial-age about that, the idea that your personal identity should be subsumed by your professional identity, that you should be read as an extension or pseudopod of the corporate entity whose uniform (visible or implied) you’re wearing, rather than as, say, a person who happens to be wearing said uniform and paid by said entity to do some work. Or maybe it’s older than that, maybe it goes back to livery and household service… or it’s a rewriting (a fairly pernicious one I’d say) of a much, much older construction of identity as member of family/village/tribe first and individual much later if at all. I think it is the norm, and I think knowing that people are going to read you that way, it’s not exactly unfair to expect you to write yourself that way, but I don’t think it’s something we should let go unquestioned. It would be nice to think that some day we could live in a world where “the opinions expressed here are my personal views and do not represent the views or policies of my employer” would be the rule rather than the exception.

  15. David, if I’m wearing something that specifically identifies me as part of an organisation eg uniform or name badge and also some personal symbol doesn’t that make it difficult to separate the two? So whilst I understand where you are coming from, I have to say I don’t see it possible to achieve this Utopia.
    There are employers who seek to restrict the out of work expression of individual lifestyle, which I find almost always unacceptable (I guess mcdonalds might reasonably object to an employee’s spare time role as a PETA picket outside their diner). Within their work environment certain limits are necessary and acceptable though.

  16. This touches on an aspect of UK (and more broadly, European) culture that’s been confusing me: the idea of a “secular society.” I heard that public institutions routinely forbid expressions of personal religion – is that right? My main examples are cases that were publicized in the US where schools had forbidden Muslim students from wearing headscarves or Christian teachers from wearing visible cross jewelry. (I think the headscarf thing was in France.)

    How does that work? Do they really expect an orthodox Jew to not wear a yamulke to school because it’s the rule? How can a religious person choose to honor man’s law over God’s?

    Or do people just not take religion so seriously in the UK as in the US? I mean, there is that whole history of “I want a divorce so I’m making up my own church” thing. 😉

    (For the record, I grew up in the US in the ’70s as an atheist child of liberals – to me, both the cross and the US flag seemed symbols of majority oppression.)

    1. It is worth remembering that the UK has a long and bloody history of sectarian violence. When the idea of religious neutrality was first mooted it was to stop different types of Christians from killing each other. That made the idea a much easier sell.

      I also note that in the UK clothing can be as much a mark of class as of religion, if not more so. UK schools have a history of regulating clothing as a means of stamping out class distinctions (or in some cases amplifying them).

      But you are right that the UK is much less serious about religion that the US. Some rather old statistics here.

  17. I still struggle with the correct technique for highlighting quotes so here goes the clumsy version …

    ” Incidentally, and out of a spirit of Genuine curiosity .. why do so many American Politicians of both the Democratic and the Republican persuasion wear a Symbol Of Faith, to wit a tiny American Flag, on their lapels?

    Oh, that’s easy: If they don’t, their opponents will accuse them of being anti-American and they won’t get elected. Pretty straightforward, really. ”

    The reply from Kevin does have the virtue of feeling RIGHT somehow.

    There is a long history of Flags as Symbols of ones Clan and Family loyalties and so I suppose that tiny flags on lapels are the modern News Bite 24 /7 worlds way to identify the wearers Political Identify as a Right Thinking member of the Political class at an almost subliminal level.

    Over here in the UK flag waving went out of fashion after the jingoism of the First World War and you will now only see it as the occasional outburst of pageantry or as a survival of tribalism – Northern Ireland comes to mind – and it is rather frowned upon by most people.

    After Kevin’s response I did dig around a little and discovered this …


    ” I happened to be watching “Fox News Sunday” where Chris Wallace interviewed Sarah Palin. She had just recently given her speech at the Tea Party Convention and I noticed her lapel pin. There were two flags on it, the Israeli flag with the Stars & Stripes. No one is surprised that she’s a proponent of the Israeli state, but I think it says something that she would wear such a thing to an event like the Tea Party Convention. This is yet another sign that the neocons may be using her as a “useful idiot” to co-opt this movement.
    That said, it’s truly bizarre that she would endorse Rand Paul while at the same time campaigning for John McCain’s re-election bid. Bill Kristol expressed his disapproval of her endorsement of Paul, a sign that she has indeed moved off the neocon reservation just a bit. Still, one of the organizers of the Tea Party Convention emphatically stated his opposition to any third-party effort. I have become more and more skeptical of the Tea Party phenomenon and this attachment to the GOP certainly solidifies my skepticism.”

    I have a hard time understanding the complexities of British politics sometimes and it looks as if, ‘ West Wing ‘ fan or no, American politics may well be completely beyond my comprehension.

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