The European Court of Human Rights is hearing a test case appeal from four British Christians who want the right to wear a cross at work.
UK government lawyers have said Christians should leave their religious beliefs at home or accept that a personal expression of faith at work, such as wearing a cross, means they might have to resign and get another job.
David Cameron, the Prime Minister, had previously pledged to change the law to protect religious expression at work but official legal submissions on Tuesday to Strasbourg human rights judges made a clear “difference between the professional and private sphere”.
James Eadie QC, acting for the government, told the European court that the refusal to allow an NHS nurse and a British Airways worker to visibly wear a crucifix at work “did not prevent either of them practicing religion in private”, which would be protected by human rights law.
He argued that that a Christian, or any other religious believer, “under difficulty” is not discriminated against if the choice of “resigning and moving to a different job” is not blocked. “The option remains open to them,” he said.
Government lawyers also told the Strasbourg court that wearing a cross is not a “generally recognised” act of Christian worship and is not required by scripture.
Nadia Eweida, a BA worker, from Twickenham, south-west London, made the headlines when she was sent home in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross or hide it from view.
An employment tribunal ruled Ms Eweida, a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt, had not suffered religious discrimination, but the airline changed its uniform policy after the case to allow all religious symbols, including crosses.
Nurse Shirley Chaplin, from Exeter, was moved to a paperwork role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after refusing to remove a necklace bearing a crucifix.
Ms Chaplin told The Daily Telegraph that she felt “insulted” by the argument that Christians who are told by their employer that they cannot wear a cross at work can always find another job.
“My Christian faith isn’t something that you put on and then take off to go to work. It is with you 27/7. It is my identity, it is who I am, I cannot chop and change it,” she said.