Attorneys representing the United Kingdom said last week that Christians might have to forfeit their jobs if they wish to express their faith in the workplace.
“Employees are free to resign if they find their employment incompatible with their religious beliefs,” government lawyer James Eadie said.
“They can obtain alternative employment in which they can reflect their religion as they wish.”
His comments were made at a Sept. 4 hearing in Strasbourg before the European Court of Human Rights, involving four cases of British Christians who claim to have suffered faith-based discrimination at their places of employment.
The plaintiffs assert that existing U.K. law insufficiently protects their rights to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work.
Two were kept from wearing crosses, Nadia Eweida, an employee of British Airways, and Shirley Chaplin, a long-time nurse.
The remaining two are Lilian Ladele, who lost her job with a London borough government for refusing to conduct civil partnerships, and Gary McFarlane, a therapist who was fired for saying he was unable to give sex therapy to homosexual couples.
According to the Daily Mail, Eadie claimed there is “a difference between the professional sphere where your religious beliefs conflict with other interests and the private sphere.”
“Everyone has the right to express their beliefs, including the right to display religious symbols, but not an absolute right or a right without limits,” he added.
“That does not mean that in their professional sphere anyone can manifest their religious belief in any way they choose.”
The lawyers maintained that because the wearing of a cross is a not a “scriptural requirement” of Christianity, employers are not obliged to allow it, also noting that the government believes same-sex couples have a right to equal access to public services.
However, leaders of both the Catholic Church and the Church of England have expressed concern that Christianity is unwelcome in the public sphere in Britain.
Prime Minister David Cameron had told the House of Commons in July that the right to wear crosses at work was “an absolutely vital freedom.”
Pope Benedict also spoke to the tensions in the case when he addressed Parliament during his papal visit to the country in 2010.
“There are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience,” the pontiff told lawmakers.
“These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”
All four plaintiffs brought their cases before the U.K. Employment Tribunal, which dismissed their claims. Their lawsuit before the court is based on the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights which concern freedom of religion and prohibition of discrimination.
The court's deliberations are held in private, and the ruling will likely be made in a few months, reported the Daily Mail.