Friday 22. October 2021
#158 - March 2013



Religious expression in the public sphere


Rather than seeing these cases principally as attacks upon religious expression in the workplace, it may be more useful to view them as inevitable elements of our public conversation.

The recent cases heard by the ECHR on the wearing of crosses in the workplace by two UK citizens have sent some to the barricades in the name of protecting religious freedom. The judgements have not entirely resolved their concerns, because they appear to represent an intrusion of law into an area understood properly as one of personal freedom. In the case of Ms Eweida, the outcome was that British Airways policy was revised to allow her to wear a cross at work. In the case of Ms Chaplin, a nurse, the judgement upheld her employer’s objection to her wearing the cross, a judgement based on practical health and safety grounds.


Rather than seeing these cases principally as attacks upon religious expression in the workplace, it may be more useful to view them as inevitable elements of our public conversation. The ECHR hearings can be seen as part of a process of legal, cultural, and political dialogue. They are part of the constant and often fruitful ‘repositioning and re-articulation of rights’ that takes place in the public spheres of liberal democracies and that occurs with reference both to democratic dialogue and legal hermeneutic. The outcome of the European Court hearings is perhaps better seen as part of a dialogue between the European Convention on Human Rights and UK national legislation, not to mention EU anti-discrimination law. This isn’t to say that there aren’t dangers to be aware of when it comes to negotiating the field for religious expression outside the realm of the private. Perspectives from political theory can help us to recognise what is at issue.


Thick identities

As part of the ongoing process of dialogue mentioned above, what is being negotiated is how ‘thick’ identities – that is identities thick with affiliations, beliefs and moral positions - can be situated and expressed within a liberal framework. A particular liberal ideal is that of the ‘self prior to its ends.’ On this view, the self can be detached from its beliefs, tastes or preferences: ends are not intrinsic to the self but separate. The extension of this philosophical view into the social realm might be an expectation that, when people emerge into public space, they leave behind their ‘thick’ identities (and the symbols that go with them) and bring only their ‘pure’ ‘unencumbered’ self.


The danger is that this reasoning may be applied far beyond the political, to mean that expression of ‘core doctrines’ or fundamental philosophical or moral beliefs should not be carried beyond the private realm, so that they are never to be made visible to others. One might think that liberalism involves a great plurality of identities, symbols and forms of expression in public space. But it’s also possible for liberalism to be distorted, requiring that these cultural markers be left behind, so that the public space remains ‘neutral’ - bland and unproblematic. This impulse derives from what Michael Walzer calls ‘the liberal art of separation’ – ‘liberalism is a world of walls, and each one creates a new liberty’. For Walzer the ‘art of separation works to isolate social settings’, to place each person ‘within his or her own circle’ and to mark off spheres where certain ways of speaking, certain modes of expression are possible, or not.


But this impulse towards separation, in Walzer’s words, lacks ‘a rich or a realistic understanding of social cohesion’ – it doesn’t reflect the lives people actually live, in which symbols and beliefs are carried from one realm of life to another, from the private sphere to work or to politics. In fact, by creating ‘spheres’ - categories such as the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ – such an understanding avoids the essential unity of a person’s life: it not only separates various dimensions of society, but also different dimensions of the person.



A contrasting vision of social cohesion is offered by Charles Taylor, who argues that we need to ‘give due acknowledgement…to what is universally present – everyone has an identity – through recognizing what is peculiar to each.’ Taylor’s position features a liberal orientation towards universality and to toleration while allowing for ‘thick’ identities – including religious ones - to be carried into the public sphere, perhaps to be expressed through symbols and signs. Indeed for Taylor, the ‘universal demand’ itself ‘powers an acknowledgement of specificity’.


While the cases of Ms Eweida and Ms Chaplin are no cause for fear and trembling, they do give pause for thought. People are carriers of culture, of ‘thick’ identities, and this is inevitably expressed and made visible in daily life. This social reality will continue to challenge the liberal ‘art of separation’; we can look forward then to an ongoing process of dialogue and negotiation in the future – which is, of course, a good thing.

Benedict Coleridge

Jesuit Refugee Service - Europe (JRS)

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.