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In its judgment in Eweida and Others v. United Kingdom, issued on 15 January, the European Court of Human Rights affirmed that the right to act in accordance with one’s religion may be limited in order to protect others from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) welcome this decision and especially the Court’s recognition that preventing sexual orientation discrimination is an important and legitimate purpose that justifies restrictions on freedom of religion.
Two of the four applications that were considered jointly in Eweida and Others concerned employees who refused to provide services to same-sex couples because of their personal religious beliefs. The other two applications concerned employer-imposed restrictions on wearing visible crosses at work.
Lillian Ladele was employed by the London Borough of Islington as a marriage registrar. She had refused to perform same-sex civil partnership ceremonies as part of her job because she believed that civil partnerships were equivalent to marriage and that same-sex unions were contrary to God’s will. Following her refusal, she was disciplined and ultimately dismissed.
The Court held that Ladele’s employer’s decision not to make an exception for her religious beliefs was both legitimate and proportionate, in light of the Court’s own case-law concerning the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and the need for same-sex couples to have legal recognition and protection of their relationships. There was thus no violation of her right to be free from discrimination on the basis of religion.
Gary McFarlane was employed by Relate Federation, a private organisation providing sex therapy and relationship counselling. He objected to treating same-sex couples and was dismissed.
The Court found that the right balance had been struck between McFarlane’s right to manifest his religious belief and “the employer’s interest in securing the rights of others.” There was no violation of his right to freedom of religion, either separately or in conjunction with the right to be free from discrimination.
“Article 9 of the European Convention protects the right to manifest one’s religion in public, but this right is not unlimited,” stated Alli Jernow, Senior Legal Advisor of the International Commission of Jurists. “With today’s judgment, the Court upholds the importance of protecting others from discrimination.”
“This is a very timely decision, and particularly important in view of the fact that similar refusals to perform marriages and partnerships of same-sex or refusal to provide services to same-sex couples is a frequent occurrence in other European jurisdictions. This decision should help to guide national governments on the balance between freedom of religion and the right to non-discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation,” stated Evelyne Paradis, ILGA-Europe’s Executive Director.
“The Court's reaffirmation that same–sex couples are in a similar situation to different-sex couples as regards their need to recognition and protection is an important step forward; that fundamental human right principle should guide all European states in the future,” concluded Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President