Cabinet minister Eric Pickles has supported demands for Christians to be allowed to wear crosses at work as two NHS workers take their case to Strasbourg.
Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh (Southport) called on communities secretary Mr Pickles to “defend the right of Christian local authority workers to discreetly wear crosses or crucifixes at work, just as you would no doubt defend the right of Sikhs to wear a turban”.
Speaking at Local Government Questions in the Commons, Mr Pickles said: “It’s certainly my view that providing any object doesn’t get in the way of doing the job, that a discreet display of someone’s religion is something we should welcome.”
David Cameron’s official spokesman later said the prime minister agreed with Mr Pickles.
“The PM’s personal view is that people should be able to wear crosses,” said the spokesman.
“Our view is that the Equality Act as it stands should allow people to express their views in this kind of way.”
The exchanges followed weekend revelations ministers were fighting a case brought by two women at the European Court of Human Rights.
The pair, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, claim they were discriminated against when their employers barred them from wearing the symbol.
Mrs Eweida’s case dates from 2006 when she was suspended by British Airways for breaching BA’s uniform code.
Mrs Chaplin was barred from working on wards by Royal Devon and Exeter Trust after refusing to hide the cross she wore on a necklace chain.
Lawyers for the two women claim that the protection under Article Nine of the Human Rights Act for “manifesting” religion covers things that are not a “requirement of the faith”.
But according to newspaper reports, the government’s submission to the Strasbourg court dismisses their argument as “ill-founded”.
The response, prepared by the Foreign Office, adds: “In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.”