Colin Atkinson is a Christian. He is also an electrician who works for a non-profit group, the Wakefield District Housing in England.
In his 15 years on the job, he never thought for a moment that the two would clash. But now he is facing the possibility of being fired.
For the last decade and a half, he’s kept a palm leaf, folded into the shape of a cross, on the dashboard of the company van he drives.
The palm cross, from a Palm Sunday service he attended in 1996, has been in Atkinson’s van for the entire 15 years he has worked for the non-profit housing organisation.
However, after a single, anonymous complaint from a tenant, he is facing disciplinary action. You see, he refused to remove the cross.
As a result, he is under “investigation” on suspicion of having given offense to “other faiths” — despite the fact that adherents of any other faiths who work for the housing authority are allowed to wear head scarves, beards and turbans. In addition, the Daily Mail newspaper says Atkinson’s boss, Denis Doody, displays in his office a poster of communist Cuban terrorist and revolutionary Che Guevara.
All that is just fine — but not Atkinson’s palm cross.
The housing authority’s written policies allow employees to wear religious symbols and clothing at work. After the complaint, and Atkinson’s refusal to remove the cross, the organization banned all “personal effects” from company vans.
Paul Diamond, a human rights attorney for the Christian Legal Centre is representing him and says that Atkinson is under “huge pressure” from the company to comply.
Atkinson says he is “really shocked and surprised” by the proceedings against him.
“I have always had that cross in my van,” he says. “It’s a symbol of my personal faith. It’s not offensive. It’s in a discrete place and I am acting lawfully.”
Andrea Minichiello Williams of the Christian Legal Centre says the case “smacks of something deeply illiberal and remarkably intolerant.”
“Freedom of expression now needs to be robustly defended. When a man can’t display a palm cross in his van in a historically Christian country, it should give people serious pause for thought. Is this the kind of society that the British public want to live in?”
Atkinson is also being supported by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey who called the housing authority’s decision “outrageous.”
“I salute Mr. Atkinson for his bravery and all Christians who quietly stand up for their faith,” Carey said.
A number of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have also supported Atkinson.
“I don’t see how anyone can take offence at this cross,” said Niranjan Vakhaira, president of the Hindu Charitable Trust in Leeds. “The employers are definitely in the wrong. Every human being has the right to follow his faith, as long as it doesn’t harm anybody. If it hasn’t harmed anybody then I don’t see the logic in telling him to remove it.’
“We find it difficult to understand why an employer would terminate someone’s employment for having a crucifix in their vehicle,” said a spokesman for the Sikh Education Council. “We suggest the employer should rethink their actions in this particular case.”
The housing authority’s action is on shaky ground, notes journalist Bob Unruh.
A new European court ruling found that a parent who was “offended” by a schoolroom display of a cross cannot demand that it be removed.
The European Court of Human Rights heard a complaint raised by Soile Lautsi on behalf of herself and her two children who opposed the presence of a crucifix in school classrooms in the predominantly Catholic nation of Italy. A lower court had banished the symbols, but the verdict from the Grand Chamber of the European Union court concluded that Italy has the right to determine its own teaching atmosphere.
That ruling is binding on all European Union nations. But will it help Atkinson?
“In deciding to keep crucifixes in the classrooms of the state school attended by the first applicant’s children, the authorities acted within the limits of the margin of appreciation left to the respondent state in the context of its obligation to respect, in the exercise of the functions it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions,” the ruling said.
“A loss in this case would have meant, in essence, that it would be illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights to have religious symbols in any state institution anywhere in Europe,” explained Roger Kiska, of the U.S.-based Alliance Defense Fund, which filed a brief in the case.
“That would have set a dangerous example for the rest of the world. For instance, lawsuits that seek to tear down religious symbols simply because one person says he or she has been ‘offended’ are very common in the U.S.”
Recently, a federal court ruled in favor of America’s National Day of Prayer, again finding that there is no constitutional protection against being offended.