Today, the European Court of Human Rights published its verdicts on four cases from the UK brought about by Christians against their employers.
The basic premise of each case is that rules imposed on each of them by their respective employers have discriminated against them on the basis of their religious freedoms. All four lost their individual cases in UK employment tribunals, but then took their cases to the highest civil court in Europe, the ECHR.
The four defendants in question are Shirley Chaplin, a nurse from Exeter; Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker from London; Lilian Ladele, a local authority registrar also from London; and Gary McFarlane, a marriage counsellor from Bristol. (Can you guess their various grievances from their jobs?)
The judges ruled that three of the defendants had not had their rights violated, but that Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker, won her case on the grounds that British Airways had been overly restrictive in its application of its uniform policy.
Shirley Chaplin and Nadia Eweida‘s cases center around their right to wear crosses at work. The NHS and British Airways have very descriptive uniform policies of what is and is not allowed. Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane‘s cases are “conscience clause” cases addressing the protection of one’s beliefs in a work environment. The cases could have an impact of deciding how far a person can reasonably go when pushing a religious objection to a duty expected of them by their employer and what options are available to that employer should the employee overstep their boundaries.
Shirley Chaplin was transferred to a desk job in 2010 by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital for failing to remove a confirmation crucifix on a small chain, one she had worn to work for 30 years. The Trust had attempted to negotiate with Chaplin and offered several solutions, including wearing the cross under her clothing, all of which she refused. The Trust said during the original employment tribunal that the removal or hiding of the necklace was a matter of health and safety — not religious discrimination.
Outbreaks of the super bug MRSA had led to all UK hospitals disinfecting everything and everyone in their buildings and her openly displayed cross was considered a health risk as it could carry the bug. The Employment Appeal Tribunal (in the UK) ruled against her claim because it said Christians “generally” did not consider wearing a cross as a requirement of their religion, adding that the safety of staff and patients was paramount at all times and “sensible and sensitive” solutions were offered to Chaplin.
Similarly, in 2006, Nadia Eweida was told by British Airways that it did not believe that the wearing of a cross was mandatory for Christians and that she must hide any jewelry under her clothing. Eweida refused, citing Sikh and Muslim employees who are allowed to wear turbans and veils as these are impractical to hide. She was given a choice of being placed on unpaid leave when she refused to cover up her cross or accepting a position where she did not have to cover it up.Eweida lost her employment tribunal case but insisted she would fight on, declaring that, “It is important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them.” Under increasing public pressure, the airline amended its uniform policy and began allowing the wearing of a lapel pin. The day after, Eweida rejected this compromise, branding it as “unacceptable to her.”
In 2007, Lilian Ladele was working as a registrar for Islington Council in North London when her role changed. Instead of working on a freelance basis, the job went under the direct control of the council. As such, her working practices changed and she became responsible for officiating marriages and civil partnerships. Ladele said she could not carry out same-sex ceremonies “as a matter of religious conscience.” When the council refused to accommodate her views and disciplined her, she sued them claiming she was being effectively forced to choose between her religion and her job as a result of being forced to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies. Corinna Ferguson, a legal officer at the civil rights group Liberty, summed up the case perfectly:
Ms Ladele is entitled to her views but not to pick and choose who is worthy of public services.
Gary McFarlane was dismissed from his job in 2008 after indicating he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith. McFarlane had been working for the charity since 2003, but when asked to provide counseling for same-sex couples, he refused on the grounds of religious belief and was fired. After his appeal was thrown out, he stated,
I have the ability to provide counselling services to same-sex couples, however, because of my Christian beliefs and principles, there should be allowances taken into account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles.
By ruling in favor of Eweida but against the three others, the ECHR essentially did the right things. The three rejected cases were clearly examples of situations in which members of the public were subject to discrimination as a result of an employee’s refusal to carry out his or her job. A person’s religious convictions should never trump issues of public health or public services. The case of Nadia Eweida is a tough one. The employer should be able to mandate its own uniform rules as it sees fit, provided they are reasonable and fair. The question is really how important it is to stop an employee from wearing a piece of jewelry. At the end of the day, unless Eweida is actively proselytizing at work and to customers, then it is of no harm to the employer to let her wear her jewelry. Hopefully, these rulings will clarify how far both employers and employees can go with this difficult balancing act.