European Court Rejects Appeals in Three Religious Discrimination Cases and Overturns Another Ruling

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 (via The Telegraph)

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.

Nadia Eweida (via The Guardian)

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.”

Lilian Ladele (via The Guardian)

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 (via The Telegraph)

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.

About Mark Turner

Mark Turner was born and raised as a Catholic in the North East of England, UK. He attended two Catholic schools between the ages of five and sixteen. A product of a moderate Catholic upbringing and an early passion for science first resulted in religious apathy and by mid-teens outright disbelief.

@markdturner

  • http://www.on-the-other-hand.com Lydia Schoch

    “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. ”

    I wonder how easy it is to disinfect jewelry? Would her necklace be ruined if it was cleaned at least daily (as I assume it would need to be in a MRSA outbreak.)

    I don’t understand why she didn’t accept the compromise of being allowed to wear it if it stayed tucked inside her clothing. That seems very fair to me.

    • allein

      Because it’s not just about wearing the cross, it’s about having people *see* her wearing the cross.

      • rufus_t

        Cue the Lady Whiteadder pictures…

    • fsm

      Because, as she said; ”It is important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them.”

      In other words, my faith requires me to let everyone know that my imaginary zombie friend loves them that makes me better than everyone else and entitled to special considerations.

      • Sindigo

        She didn’t say that. Nadia Eweida said that about her case. If we’re going to criticise them, we need to be accurate about it. Other wise we’re as guilty as the media in lumping these very different cases together.

    • rufus_t

      Daily cleaning wouldn’t be nearly enough, at the hospital where a friend worked hands (and jewelry handled) would need to be disinfected between individual patients (little birthday tip for anyone buying for a nurse, handcare products, especially the restorative ones, are an easy win).

    • Randomfactor

      I’d be much more concerned about doctors’ neckties. As to why she rejected the compromise,it was because she was proselytizing on company time.

      • JustSayin’

        I recall reading years ago that the NHS had banned neckties for that very reason.

    • Patterrssonn

      “I wonder how easy it is to disinfect jewelry?”

      Not very easy, she’d have to take it off every time she left a pt’s room and clean it with a disinfectant, then wait till it dried in order to put it back on. It also seems like it hangs low enough that whenever she bent over to provide pt care there would be a risk that it would swing forward and come into contact with the pt or the pt’s bedding.

    • Agrajag

      It’s fairly easy to disinfect all-metal jewelry – an autoclave, or immersion in a suitable disinfecting liquid will suffice.

      The problem is that daily isn’t nearly enough; you want to minimize inter-patient-infections, and as a nurse you interact with dozens, perhaps even hundreds of different patients every day.

  • robert

    The post title is inaccurate – the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU, it’s separate.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      My mistake. Fixed!

    • Quintin van Zuijlen

      It’s a part of the Council of Europe actually, of which the EU is practically a subset. In principle its rulings are applicable anywhere that is could reasonably considered a part of Europe except Belarus, Kazachstan and the Vatican.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    Well, if christians can now start ignoring official uniform policies from their employers and openly wear cross’, then I’m going to insist on my right to openly wear a scarlet A. To not allow me to do so if they allow christians the right to wear a cross would be religious discrimination under the Equalities Act 2010.

    This just makes a nonsense of companies having a uniform and a uniform policy.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      Were all necklaces banned, or just ones with crosses? If there’s a ban on necklaces in general, then I don’t see how her rights were violated by being told she can’t wear one.

      • allein

        I think it was necklaces in general.

    • Sindigo

      What makes you think anyone would care if you wore a scarlet A or a Darwin fish or a FSM badge for that matter?

      Uniform policies do not trump inalienable rights. One of which is the requirement of a company to make reasonable accommodation to a person’s faith.

  • jane maple

    Eweida’s comment that ”It is important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them.” makes it very clear that her actions have nothing to do with personal belief and everything to do with stuffing her religion down other people’s throats and that is the message that most of us receive from her insistence on displaying her jewellery.

    • Sindigo

      There was no evidence to suggest that she was proselytizing in any way nor that she was “stuffing her religion down” anyone’s throat. It’s a reasonable accommodation to her faith. BA obviously agree as they changed the policy back in 2007.

      • coyotenose

        Her own argument is that evidence, as jane maple pointed out.

        • Sindigo

          Wearing a religious symbol at work, while not strictly speaking against a dictionary definition of proselytizing; “to convert or attempt to convert as a proselyte” is not exactly what one would usually regard as act of evangelism now is it? It’s not even in the same league as posting a church flyer through someone’s door, let alone standing on a street corner and telling passers by they’re all going to hell.

          To regard such benign displays of faith as stuffing religion down anyone’s throat smacks of the same thin-skinned persecution complex that we godless folk constantly berate the religious for. We should be better than that.

          • Dezzydez

            It is trying to convert when a patient is under her care. She is an authority figure with power over a patient’s care.

            • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

              Eweida is the British Airways one; she doesn’t have patients.

          • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

            Eweida interacts with the public all day long. Her statement, ”It is important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them.” seems pretty telling to me.

            I could be reading too much into it. In my experience, the litmus test is that a predator says “jesus loves you” while simply practicing their faith for themselves says “jesus love me”.

            • Sindigo

              I think you’re right. You are reading too much into it. Calling her a “predator” is hyperbole.

    • Sven2547

      “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
      –Matthew 6:1

      Eweida, like most Christians, needs to brush up on her theology.

  • Sindigo

    From my understanding of the Shirley Chaplin case it had less to do with the potential spread of MRSA and more to do with the H&S risk of a disoriented patient grabbing hold of it. The trust in questions also suggested she either wore it on a lanyard or as a pin, both of which suggestions she refused.

    In Nadia Eweida’s case I think BA was wrong to not allow her to wear the cross. It’s a pretty small item of jewellery after all and didn’t interfere with her job in any way. BA have now changed their policy to allow such things:

    “On 19 January 2007 BA announced that they would in future allow employees to wear a symbol of faith “openly” on a lapel pin, “with some flexibility … to wear a symbol of faith on a chain”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eweida_v_British_Airways_plc

  • corhen

    The only person on the list i can have any sympathy for is Eweida. The rest of the cases is “i want to put myself in front of my corporation/government, and deserve to be able to make changes to policy (such as gay marriage) based around my beliefs”

    • primenumbers

      I wonder if BA had not accommodated Muslims and Sikhs, that the case would have gone the other way?

      • Glasofruix

        A muslim sex therapist, that totally makes sense…

        • Pisk_A_Dausen

          BA employs sex therapists? Man, their passengers must have high expectations when it comes to on-board services…

    • ha2

      And, appropriately enough, that was the one case where the courts ruled in the person’s favor!

      This set of rulings worked out pretty well, I think.

  • bernardaB

    Humility does not seem to be part of these xian characters. What do you think would happen to YOU if you said to her, “Why are you wearing such a silly thing?”

    • Sindigo

      As a customer, absolutely nothing. At least nothing official.

      As a fellow employee or her employer you could expect disciplinary action or a tribunal of some sort, possibly even a court case for being needlessly offensive. In exactly the same way as if you called her a “moron”. And quite right too.

      • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

        So there are protections against criticizing belief in fairy tales.

        Sucks.

        • Sindigo

          No, there are protections in the workplace against causing needless offence. It doesn’t suck, it’s about behaving civilly to each other and a need to work well with others in order to get a job done.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    So if Eweida were to have worn a swastika necklace, that should be legal too, right? I don’t know about you, but I would fire someone who wore a swastika necklace to the job and refused to hid it. The court ruled the wrong way on that case.

    • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

      That’s a rather strange comparison. The swastika is a symbol of hate. No one would wear a swastika unless they wanted to frighten or upset others. What the cross stands for may be unsavory, but the symbol is hardly threatening.

      • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

        You’re missing my point. You are arguing about content but that isn’t the government’s job to decide what content they like and what content they don’t like. The laws have to be applied equally to everyone. If one necklace is allowed, then all necklaces have to be allowed regardless of what the necklace means to the person wearing it or to other persons.

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          Well, that’s fair enough. I’m still not clear on the original case. Were other employees allowed to wear necklaces? If they were, I don’t see why Eweida shouldn’t have been able to wear her cross. If no one was allowed to wear jewelry, then I don’t think she has a legitimate complaint.

          • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

            As I understand it, it was a dress code thing and jewelry was in the dress code.

            • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

              So, no jewelry for anyone? If that’s the case, then I disagree with the decision. She’s not being treated unfairly if she’s being held to the exact same standard as all the other employees.

              • eric

                Apparently BA made exceptions to their dress code for sikh turbans and muslim veils, so basically the ECHR said BA also needed to make an exception for a christian cross if they were gonig to be neutral.
                BA’s counter-argument was that they only make exceptions for dress items that a religion mandates, not just voluntary things associated with it. Christianity does not require adhreents wear a cross the way sikhism requires a turban (technically: that men not cut their hair), for example. Obviously, the court did not find that counterargument convincing.

                • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

                  Thanks for the additional info! It seems like this is just another case of a Christian complaining about not being allowed to break the rules. However, in fairness, BA’s dress code sounds awfully restrictive. It’s not like wearing a neclace (with or without a pendant) is a distraction on the job. Surely, they don’t make employees take off wedding rings or earrings. I don’t see why they shouldn’t allow necklaces.

                • Sindigo

                  I put this elsewhere but here is all the extra info you could need:

                  Eweida vs BA (wiki)

                  BA obviously agree that it was an overly restrictive policy too: “On 19 January 2007 BA announced that they would in future allow employees to wear a symbol of faith “openly” on a lapel pin, “with some flexibility … to wear a symbol of faith on a chain”.

                • Sindigo

                  I put this elsewhere but here is all the extra info you could need:

                  Eweida vs BA (wiki)

                  BA obviously agree that it was an overly restrictive policy too: “On 19 January 2007 BA announced that they would in future allow employees to wear a symbol of faith “openly” on a lapel pin, “with some flexibility … to wear a symbol of faith on a chain”.

      • Randomfactor

        It’s also a religious symbol. For centuries.

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          Of course, but no one in the West would ever wear a swastika due to the association with the Nazis.

      • meekinheritance

        Tell that to the 11-13th century Muslims or the 16th century Aztecs.

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          You have a point, but this is modern Western culture we’re talking about. No one in 21st-century America or Europe honestly feels threatened at the mere sight of crosses. Not even Jews, who actually might have good reason to fear them.

      • Isilzha

        A cross is a symbol of hate too! A cross is actually an object used to torture and kill people.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

        Um… how, exactly, is a brutal execution device “hardly threatening”?

        • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

          Because that’s not how it’s perceived in our culture. A cross isn’t seen as threatening in Western society. If anything, it has positive connotations.

          I certainly don’t think it should be seen that way. It is, as you said, a brutal torture device. But we’re all so accustomed to crosses that they barely register, let alone have a negative emotional impact.

          • http://www.facebook.com/eukota Darrell Ross

            I can see why you might think of a cross as positive.

            When I see someone wearing a cross, my mind instantly begins to pick apart my conversations with them. I always wonder just how far into reality the “crazy” reaches.

            I certainly do not find crosses comforting.

            • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

              I don’t think of a cross as positive, but most people in Western society do. That’s the only point I was trying to make. For most Americans and Europeans, it has positive associations. Even for non-Christians, it’s benign, not threatening.

  • http://gadlaw.com gadlaw

    Well, at the end of the day the employee is not there by right but subject to the conditions of employment so at ‘the end of the day’ they should have all lost their cases. It’s not a difficult balancing act, your right to believe whatever nonsense you want is not imperiled by conditions of employment. Seriously.

    • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

      “but subject to the conditions of employment”

      And the law. Workers (and, everyone, really) have inalienable rights that can’t be signed away in an employment contract, and there are plenty of things that are rightly just plain illegal for employers to do.

      It’s perfectly fair to question whether any of these cases should have gone the ways that they did, but it’s silly to write them off on the grounds that ‘conditions of employment’ trump everything else, because they don’t.

      • http://gadlaw.com gadlaw

        Hey there Ewan, well didn’t they lose all the way up the line? And the reasoning the employers gave were based on their understanding of the law. A lot of this is settled law and these folks really should have had someone advise them as to the state of the law and their chances of prevailing. As it was they did get to play the part of the martyr which is a ubiquitous Xtian theme despite their majority position in the culture. You know “Look at me! I’m being persecuted for my religious beliefs!”

        • ha2

          Three of them lost, one of them eventually won.

        • Sindigo

          To say that Eweida lost all the way up the line isn’t exactly correct as BA agreed their uniform policy was overly restrictive and changed in back in 2007:

          “On 19 January 2007 BA announced that they would in future allow employees to wear a symbol of faith “openly” on a lapel pin, “with some flexibility … to wear a symbol of faith on a chain”.

          Eweida vs BA (wiki)

          I wonder how many downvotes this will garner me this time? ;)

  • http://profiles.google.com/davydd.norris David Philip Norris

    Yup, this isn’t about religious freedom. It’s about having the freedom to force your religious beliefs in everyone’s face, whether they want to hear about them or not.

  • Rod

    Oh come on John, I’m an atheist and I’m really not offended by expressions of faith like that. As long as she was doing her job I couldn’t get worked up about it to give a damn. It would be different if it was a badge saying “have you spoken to Jesus today” or something like that, but a cross…OK so she may have thought she was telling me Jesus loves me but that’s between her and ….whatever, it makes no difference to me. FWIW I thought the court was, once again, bang on the money. It won’t stop the Colonel Blimps and “FedupofEurope, Home Counties” though.

  • Sandra

    I wonder, do the organisations that bar religious jewelry also bar religious garb such as hijab? The hijab also testifies to the person’s faith much like a cross necklace.
    I myself am an atheist, and would never want a person to take it upon themselves to prosthelytize while working, but small religious jewelry has never really bothered me.
    Part of living in the world is knowing that people whom you don’t agree with, exist.

    But if they fail to do their job because they think their belief tells them some aspect of it is a sin, they need to find another job.

    • allein

      It wasn’t “religious jewelry” that was barred, it was simply “jewelry” (or at least, certain types of jewelry). The religious content was not the issue as far as the dress code was concerned, as far as I can tell. Part of the argument from at least one of the employers was that wearing a cross necklace is not a religious requirement in the Christian faith like the hijab is (at least in certain groups of Muslims). I don’t know of any Christian denomination that “requires” lay people to wear specific religious garb (I could be wrong).

  • Lagerbaer

    I really like the European Court. It has a long past of sensible rulings on tough cases.

    • Sindigo

      I couldn’t agree more. I just hope our current crop of great and good doesn’t opt out of it.

  • andy

    Its worth reading the full judgement here :-http://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2013/37.html as it covers some of the points below. It is interesting to see where the verdicts were unanimous & where there was contention (& why). Its also interesting to see what the Strasbourg court thought should be awarded vs what was asked for. On the whole it seems to be a fair & sensible ruling


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