The UK Government lost one of four crucial legal cases on religious freedoms and discrimination at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg yesterday, but claimed that overall the verdict represented a victory for their policies on the matter.
Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele all took appeals over employment discrimination to the European Court on the basis that their right to freedom of religion under article 9 was infringed by the policies of their employers.
However, the European Court disagreed, ruling against three of the appellants. Lillian Ladele, a council registrar who refused to conduct same-sex marriages, and Gary McFarlane, a relationship counsellor who refused to give advice to same-sex couples, both lost their appeals against dismissal.
Although the court accepted in both cases that the appellants had genuinely held strong religious convictions, the court ruled that in both cases their employers were seeking to prevent discrimination against same-sex couples and that their actions against the two appellants was legitimate to preserve equality in the services offered by the council and Relate Avon (Mr McFarlane’s employer).
Shirley Chaplin also lost her appeal, although in her case the ECHR decided that the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust had a dress-code policy that prohibited the wearing of most visible jewellery and that this was legitimately and proportionately implemented for health and safety reasons. The court noted that another Christian nurse and two Sikh nurses had also been asked to remove jewellery and religious symbols as evidence that the policy was not discriminatory.
Ms Eweida was the only one of the four appellants to win her case. A Coptic Christian, Ms Eweida was a check-in staff employee for British Airways. The BA dress code stated that religious items must be covered by the uniform unless impractical and in such circumstances a local manager should be consulted.
Ms Eweida had had several incidents with her line manager concerning the wearing of her cross outside of her BA uniform. Company policy was that paid hours would be deducted for any period in which a member of staff was non-compliant with the dress code and as such Ms Eweida had lost pay by refusing to remove the cross.
In response to public criticism BA reviewed and changed its dress code and Ms Eweida was allowed to return to work sporting her crucifix; however, BA refused to compensate her for lost earnings.
The court ruled that her right to freedom of religion was infringed by the company’s actions, as it was a private business and had no other legitimate reason for prohibiting Ms Eweida’s right to express her religion, something supported by the fact that the company later changed its policy with little adverse effect.
Ms Eweida was awarded £1,500 compensation in the case. Afterwards she said she was “jumping with joy” at the decision.
Prime Minister David Cameron, whose position on the matter has been criticised, tweeted that he was happy with the verdict.
“Delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld – people shouldn’t suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs,” he wrote.
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