Religious beliefs and equality in the workplace

January 2013

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Claims by UK employees

The European Court of Human Rights has today given its judgment in relation to the cases of four individuals who claimed that they suffered discrimination at work due to their religious beliefs. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in relation to the first claimant, Nadia Eweida, that that the UK had failed to protect her freedom to manifest her faith in the workplace by allowing her employer to refuse to allow her to wear a cross at work. However, the court ruled against the other three applicants.

All four applicants who are practising Christian brought claims relying on Article 9 (freedom of thought,conscience and religion) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination). They claimed that UK law does not sufficiently protect their rights to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work. Ms Eweida, who is a British Airways employee, and Ms Chaplin, a geriatrics nurse, complained that their employers placed restrictions on their being able to wear Christian crosses visibly around their necks in the workplace. Ms Ladele, a Registrar, and Mr McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, complained about their dismissals for refusing to carry out certain of their duties which they considered would condone homosexuality.

The court held that there had been an interference with Ms Eweida's right to manifest her religion in that she had been unable to wear her cross visibly at work due to the British Airways uniform code which required that there was no jewellery visible. The code allowed a staff member to wear jewellery for religious reasons if it could be covered or that prior approval had been sought. When Ms Eweida decided to wear the cross openly, she was suspended and remained at home until the company's policy was changed. The court had to consider whether a fair balance had been struck between Ms Eweida's desire to manifest her religious belief and BA's desire to portray a corporate image. The fact that employees of other religions had been permitted to wear religious items such as turbans and hijabs without any negative effect and that the company had proceeded to amend its uniform policy, showed that the earlier prohibition had not been necessary. Therefore, Ms Eweida's right to manifest her religion had not been adequately protected.

The court however, did not uphold the claim of Ms Chaplin, a nurse in a hospital. In that case Ms Chaplin was asked to remove the cross around her neck on the basis of health and safety on the wards. Hospital managers in such situations were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety and therefore the request to remove the cross had not been disproportionate.

The claims of Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane were also dismissed. Ms Ladele had been employed as a Registrar by the London Borough of Islington from 1992 to 2009. When the Civil Partnership Act came into force in 2005 she was informed that she would be required to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies. She refused to do so and was subsequently dismissed. Mr McFarlane was an experienced relationships counsellor who indicated during a training course that if the situation ever arose he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith. He was dismissed for gross misconduct.

In respect of both these claims the court held that the most important factor to be taken into account was that both employers had policies to promote equal treatment of others and were pursuing the legitimate aim of securing that equal treatment. The authorities had wide discretion in interpreting the balance between the employers aims and the applicants right to manifest their religion. The court held that the right balance had been struck and therefore the two applicants were not successful.

The court's decision indicates that employers should accommodate an employee's expression of their religious beliefs in the workplace as long as it is reasonable and does not impact on the rights of others. Employers need therefore to strike a fair balance between religious beliefs and the requirements of the workplace.