LONDON, January 20, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Christian and conservative legal experts and observers are warning that a recent decision from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) could spell the effective end of religious freedom in Britain. The court ruled last week on four cases brought by Christians who said their employers had discriminated against them because of their beliefs.

Gregor Puppinck, the lead counsel for the European Centre for Law and Justice, an ECHR watchdog group, called the ruling a “significant step back for freedom of conscience and religion in Europe.”

In one of the four cases, the ECHR ruled in favor of the complainant, saying that British Airways must allow her to wear a small cross necklace at work.

However, in the three remaining cases the court ruled against the complainants. In one case a nurse was told that she had to comply with a demand that she remove the cross that she had worn under her uniform. In the remaining two, more significant cases, the ECHR said the two complainants had no right to refuse to participate in same-sex civil partnerships or to refuse to counsel homosexual couples.

Puppinck said that while some Western democracies have chosen to adopt a model of “reasonable accommodation” which allows “a diverse society to live together in mutual respect,” that was not the approach taken in the ECHR’s ruling.

“What is the most inacceptable in the … ruling is that it found that the dismissal of the employees is proportionate to the need to enforce the employer’s ‘equality and diversity policies’ which is aimed at fighting against sexual, racial and religious discriminations,” Puppinck said. He added that the case needs to be returned to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber.

Andrea Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, agreed. “What we had hoped would happen was that the European Court would develop a test of ‘reasonable accommodation’" she said.

“Had it done so, I think it would have been a lot more reasonable than anything we’re currently experiencing in our domestic courts. Instead, the European Court said there was a ‘wide margin of appreciation’ (meaning discretion) for employers to exercise the balancing act between competing rights.”

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An editorial appearing in the Daily Mail shortly after the publication of the ruling warned that the case puts the lie to the British government’s insistence that churches would not be punished for refusing to conduct “gay marriage” ceremonies if gay "marriage" passes. The paper called it “depressingly predictable that the court found the rights of a sexual minority trumped those of Christians.”

“Indeed, these rulings add great weight to this week’s warning that once gay marriage becomes law, churches may be sued if they refuse to embrace it.” The ruling proves that “that the court’s respect for our national religion and the right of believers to follow their consciences is paper-thin.”

Puppinck said that it is the court’s support for the coercive nature of the employers’ actions as “proportionate” that was most troubling.

“How can one consider proportionate to dismiss an employee when it would have been easy for the employer to accommodate him affecting him to other positions or tasks?

“The refusal by the employers to accommodate the applicants is merely an ideological sanction meaning that, as a question of principle, there is no room in the staff for ‘intolerant Christians’.”

The prominent British lawyer, Aidan O’Neill QC, also warned the government that given the existing case decisions, it is inevitable that churches and clergy will be sued when they refuse to participate in gay “marriage”. Because the Church of England, the established church, has a legal obligation to marry anyone in their local parish any exemption the government might write into the law is “eminently challenge-able” in the European Court of Human Rights, which under the Lisbon Treaty has the right to overturn national laws, said O’Neill.

O’Neill also warned that councils may be able to bar churches that say they only marry a man and a woman from hiring a community centre; that Christian teachers will be forced to give lessons on homosexual relationships; and that parents who ask for their child to be excused from classes about the history of “homosexual rights” would have “no such enforceable right.”