Persecuted for his cross: Electrician told he faces the sack for Christian symbol on his van dashboard
by Jonathan Petre
An electrician faces the sack for displaying a small palm cross on the dashboard of his company van.
Former soldier Colin Atkinson has been summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the giant housing association where he has been employed for 15 years because he refuses to remove the symbol.
Mr Atkinson, a regular worshipper at church, said: “The treatment of Christians in this country is becoming diabolical...but I will stand up for my faith.”
Throughout his time at work, he has had an 8in-long cross made from woven palm leaves attached to the dashboard shelf below his windscreen without receiving a single complaint.
But his bosses at publicly funded Wakefield and District Housing (WDH) in West Yorkshire – the fifth-biggest housing organisation in England – have demanded he remove the cross on the grounds it may offend people or suggest the organisation is Christian. Mr Atkinson’s union representative said he faces a full disciplinary hearing next month for gross misconduct, which could result in dismissal.
The association strongly promotes “inclusive” policies and allows employees to wear religious symbols at work.
It has provided stalls at gay pride events, held “diversity days” for travellers, and hosted a gender reassignment event entitled A World That Includes Transpeople.
Mr Atkinson, who has an unblemished work record, said he had not been shown similar respect.
“The past few months have been unbelievable, a nightmare,” he said.
“I have worked in the coal mines and served in the Army in Northern Ireland and I have never suffered such stress. The treatment of Christians in this country is becoming diabolical. It is political correctness taken to the extreme.”
But he added: “I have never been so full of resolve. I am determined to stand up for my rights. If they sack me, so be it. But I am standing up for my faith.”
Mr Atkinson’s battle follows a series of similar cases involving Christians who claim their freedoms have been curbed following the introduction of controversial equality laws.
Campaigners accused the housing association of “remarkable intolerance” at a time when millions of Christians will be celebrating Palm Sunday today, a week before Easter Sunday. Palms are traditionally distributed during services to mark Christ’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.
Despite the company’s treatment of Mr Atkinson, the boss of the depot where he works in Castleford has been allowed to adorn his office with a poster of the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara.
Denis Doody, who is WDH’s environmental manager, also has a whiteboard on which are written several quotations by the Marxist guerrilla leader, who was a key figure in the Cuban revolution in the Fifties.
Colleagues said staff and even members of the public who were visiting the depot would be able to see the poster and whiteboard through his office window.
Mr Atkinson began work as an electrician in the mines before serving as an Army radio technician for seven years. His military career included a stint at the notorious, riot-torn Long Kesh internment camp in Northern Ireland in 1974.
He was employed as a £25,000-a-year electrician by Wakefield Council in 1996, but its housing department was transferred into the association’s ownership six years ago.
His ordeal began last year when managers at WDH, which has 31,000 properties, told Mr Atkinson to remove the cross from the van after years of ignoring it.
He demanded to know why. He said his cross was as discreet and inoffensive as other forms of religious expression and accused his bosses of badgering him.
The company said, however, that he had refused a “reasonable” request to remove the symbol from an official vehicle that could be seen by members of the public.
The 64-year-old grandfather became a committed Christian more than 20 years ago and was a regular Church of England worshipper for many years.
He and his second wife Geraldine, 61, who have five children from previous marriages and three grandchildren, now attend the Pentecostal Destiny Church in Wakefield.
The softly spoken electrician said he never pushed his beliefs on other people but would gently explain his faith to anyone who enquired.
Mr Atkinson said: “Over the years, members of the public would occasionally spot the cross and ask me about it. I suppose this might happen a couple of times a year, though I don’t think I have had anyone enquiring about it in the past couple of years.
“If people raised it, I would ask them if they could spare two minutes and tell them. I never had an adverse reaction or complaint.”
He said he had kept palm crosses ever since he was given one at a Palm Sunday service more than 20 years ago, and replaced them when they fell apart.
“I’m just an ordinary bloke. I get on with people and have many friends of other faiths, including a Sikh and a Hindu who both came and spoke up for me at one of the meetings I’ve had with managers about this.
“Christians are called to be public in our faith, and the cross is my way of being obedient to that call. It brings me peace and strength. It is a central part of who I am and I can’t hide it away.”
In 2009, Mr Atkinson switched to a three-day-a-week training post overseeing apprentices so he could spend more time caring for his sick wife.
He said that although his new role meant he spent more time in the office, he was approached by a line manager who asked him to remove the cross from his van.
Over the following weeks, Mr Atkinson was subjected to further requests from several different managers, but he demanded to speak to more senior bosses.
He said: “They would take me to one side and say I had to get rid of it. For weeks I didn’t know where all this was coming from.
“Then a colleague who had overheard a conversation tipped me off that there had been an anonymous letter complaining about misuse of the van and mentioning the cross. It was a malicious letter full of scurrilous lies and the company never pursued the claims. But it used the letter to raise the issue of the cross.
“I felt I was being badgered, so I complained that I was being harassed because of my faith.”
In a series of meetings last year, Mr Atkinson and his Unite union representative, Terry Cunliffe, argued that there was nothing in the rules explicitly prohibiting the cross, which had been accepted for years.
Transcripts of meetings show they strongly disputed the company’s claim that the cross could offend someone, or that anyone who saw it in the van – one of the company’s 280 vehicles – would conclude that the association was Christian.
Mr Cunliffe said at one meeting: “What if there were political or religious documents on the dashboard? Would it look like they were WDH’s? A cross on the side of a building would reflect on WDH. A cross displayed in the front of a vehicle would be, in my opinion, a reflection of the person driving.”
But the company’s equality and diversity manager, Jayne O’Connell, who was recruited from HBoS bank in 2009, replied: “WDH has a stance of neutrality. We now have different faiths, new emerging cultures. We have to be respectful of all views and beliefs.”
HBoS became part of Lloyds Banking Group after it almost collapsed in late 2008.
At another meeting, Ms O’Connell said Mr Atkinson could express his faith but “it is quite clear it cannot be associated with WDH and displaying the cross gives the impression that WDH is a Christian organisation".
She said staff could demonstrate their personal beliefs “discreetly”, even adding that the company could provide extra material in its official corporate colours “for employees who wish to wear a different style of uniform".
Pressed by Mr Cunliffe on whether a Muslim woman who wore a burka at work would be considered discreet, she said: “If they could do their job effectively, then yes.”
Asked whether she would think a burka in WDH corporate colours was discreet, Ms O’Connell replied: “Yes, it would be.”
Mr Atkinson, who has been advised by human rights lawyer Paul Diamond, said he had been “flabbergasted” when his grievances were rejected and he was told he could be disciplined.
In December, the company, which had earlier admitted that its policy on vehicles was unclear, issued an “updated” policy saying that all personal symbols should be removed from vans.
Mr Atkinson said: “I can’t come to any other conclusion than that they moved the goalposts so they could single me out. I felt I was on trial for my faith.”
Since the policy was updated, he has been summoned to a series of preliminary disciplinary investigations, the latest of which was last week. At the end of that meeting he was told that managers would hold a full disciplinary hearing in May.
Mr Cunliffe said: “Colin has been told to attend a full disciplinary hearing next month. Under company rules, refusing a 'reasonable' management request is gross misconduct, which can result in summary dismissal.”
Speaking at his neat terrace house in Wakefield – where there is little evidence of his strong faith except for a Christian fish symbol alongside an array of family photographs – Mr Atkinson said he had suffered sleepless nights and had occasionally been reduced to tears.
He said his wife, who suffers from a muscular disease that has often confined her to a wheelchair, had also suffered from stress.
He added: “I found the meetings intimidating and a bit confrontational. I felt on the defensive. I came out thinking, “‘Why should I be on the defensive?’’
“I have, however, received overwhelming support from friends and rank-and-file colleagues, which has given me strength.
“I can only think the company is motivated by fear of offending ethnic minorities.”
Andrea Williams, of the Christian Legal Centre, which is backing Mr Atkinson, said: “Colin Atkinson is a decent and hard-working man, yet after many years of service he has been told he cannot continue to have a small palm cross in his van.
“This smacks of something deeply illiberal and remarkably intolerant. Is this the kind of society the British public want to live in?
“The cross is a profound symbol of God’s love for all of us. We should not be embarrassed about it.”
Mr Cunliffe said his union abhorred any form of discrimination, but the association was “taking its politically correct policies far too far".
He said: “The company is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is totally disproportionate that someone should face dismissal for displaying a discreet religious symbol.
“It will rebound on the company because the treatment of Colin will deeply upset people of other faiths who have no problem with his cross.”
Wakefield District Housing said: “We do not allow employees to display any personal representations in our vehicles, although they are free to do so upon their person.
“It would be inappropriate to comment further about this individual case.”
The association had a turnover of £106 million in the financial year to the end of March 2010. The chief executive is Kevin Dodd, who earns £157,000 a year.
A 2009 report revealed that the association staged a number of diversity days for employees and tenants. Sessions have been led by groups including Women In Construction, Mental Health Matters and The Leeds Gypsy and Travellers Group. The imam from Wakefield Central Mosque has also been involved.
The company also produces an intranet calendar for employees that shows religious festivals and celebrations.
It said it aims to “influence the embedding of diversity and inclusion best practice with all policies, processes and procedures to ensure WDH maximises the potential of all our employees and customers”.
In a survey for the company’s 2010 annual report, more than half of its tenants – 51 per cent – said they were Christian, while just half a per cent described themselves as Muslim.
Of the rest, 17 per cent said they were of no faith, 30 per cent failed or refused to supply an answer, and the remainder were “spiritualist” or “other”.