Electrician faces sack over cross displayed in van
Former soldier Colin Atkinson, who has worked for Wakefield and District Housing (WDH) for 15 years, has been told to remove the religious symbol because it could offend tenants or suggest the organisation is Christian.
But the 64-year-old grandfather, who has an unblemished work record, has refused to take it down, saying that the demand is an example of “political correctness taken to the extreme”.
His union representative said he had been summoned to attend a full gross misconduct hearing next month, which could result in dismissal.
Mr Atkinson, who works from a depot in Castleford, said: “I’m really shocked and surprised by all of this.
“I have always had that cross in my van. It’s a symbol of my personal faith. It’s not offensive.
“It’s in a discreet place and I am acting lawfully.”
WDH, the fifth-largest housing organisation in England, promotes inclusive policies and claims to be “among the top 10 employers in the area”.
It employs about 1,400 staff, and those who adhere to other faiths are allowed to wear head-dresses and turbans.
But the publicly-funded company carried out an investigation after it received a written complaint from a tenant relating to Mr Atkinson’s eight-inch cross, made from woven palm leaves.
Mr Atkinson, who became a committed Christian more than 20 years ago, began his career as an electrician working down coal mines. He later served as an Army radio technician for seven years.
He is in trouble for allegedly failing to comply with company policy which prohibits employees from displaying personal items in WDH vehicles.
“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.”
Mr Atkinson is being represented by Paul Diamond, a human rights barrister and Standing Counsel for the Christian Legal Centre.
The centre’s chief executive, Andrea Minichiello Williams, said “Colin Atkinson is a decent and hard-working man, yet after many years of service he has been told that he cannot continue to have a small palm cross in his van.
“This 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?”
Mr Atkinson reduced his hours to working three days a week in 2009 so he could spend more time caring for his wife Geraldine, 61, who suffers from a muscular disease.
The couple have five children from previous marriages and three grandchildren, and regularly attend the Pentecostal Destiny Church in Wakefield.
Mr Atkinson said that 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.
He added that he never pushed his beliefs on other people but would gently explain his faith to anyone who enquired.
“I never had an adverse reaction or complaint,” he said.
A WDH spokesman said all the company’s drivers were subject to the same rules. “We do not allow employees to display any personal representations in our vehicles, although they are free to do so upon their person,” he said.
“It would be inappropriate to comment further about this individual case.”
BA WORKER IN CRUCIFIX FIGHT
The row over Colin Atkinson’s palm cross bears similarities with the case of devout Christian Nadia Eweida, who was sent home from work after she refused to cover up a crucifix necklace.
British Airways (BA) sent home Miss Eweida in September 2006 for wearing a silver cross on a chain, which she wore as a personal expression of her faith.
She returned to work at customer services at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 five months later after BA changed its uniform policy on jewellery.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled in 2008 that BA had not discriminated against Miss Eweida. She took the case to the Court of Appeal last year, but lost.