Airline check-in operator wins appeal at European court but three similar cases fail, as other rights trump faith
After seven years of legal appeals and accusations that Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs, the European court of human rights has ruled that a British Airways check-in operator should not have been prevented from wearing a cross at work.
Nadia Eweida, 60, was jubilant over her landmark victory, declaring it a “vindication” for Christians, after the court awarded her €2,000 (£1,600) in compensation for the “anxiety, frustration and distress” she endured.
While the finely tuned judicial compromise does not establish an absolute right for every employee to wear a crucifix, or religious symbol, visibly at work, it will help define the limits of religious freedom.
The decision on Eweida, a Coptic Christian working at Heathrow, was welcomed by David Cameron and others across the political spectrum.
Equally significant in the court’s complex ruling, however, was its determination that three other Christian applicants – Lilian Ladele, 52, a local authority registrar who lives in London, Shirley Chaplin, 57, a nurse from Exeter, and Gary McFarlane, 51, a Bristol marriage counsellor – who also claimed they had suffered religious discrimination, should lose their appeals.
The four decisions, contained in one judgment, stressed the principle that religious liberties should not trump other human rights. Freedom of religion, the court stated, as “one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies” but “where an individual’s religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made”.
In Eweida’s case, the Strasbourg court did not criticise UK law but said British courts failed to balance competing interests in the case adequately. On one hand was Eweida’s desire to display her religious belief; on the other was the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image.
“While this aim was undoubtedly legitimate,” the judgment said, “the domestic courts accorded it too much weight … the fact that [BA] was able to amend the uniform code to allow for the visible wearing of religious symbolic jewellery demonstrates that the earlier prohibition was not of crucial importance.”
The prime minister, who intervened in the debate last summer by saying he might change the law, was among those who welcomed the ruling. Cameron wrote on Twitter: “Delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld – ppl shouldn’t suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs.” In Chaplin’s case, superficially almost identical to Eweida’s, the judges unanimously decided the UK courts had resolved competing rights equitably. Chaplin stressed the importance for her to be allowed to bear witness to her Christian faith by wearing a crucifix visibly around her neck at work. But the Strasbourg judges said the fact that hospital authorities had asked her to remove it for the protection of health and safety and to prevent infections spreading on a ward “was inherently more important”. Hospital managers, the judges agreed, “were well placed to make decisions about clinical safety”.
Appeals by the other two claimants,Ladele and McFarlane were dismissed on the grounds that the disciplinary proceedings against them were justified. Ladele had been sacked by Islington council for not being prepared to conduct civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex couples. McFarlane was dismissed from his job after indicating he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith.
Both Islington council and the charity Relate were bound not to discriminate against their clients and therefore could not support staff who refused to work with homosexual couples, the court said.
After the ruling, Eweida, who lives in Twickenham, said: “I’m very pleased that after all this time the European court has specifically recognised … that I have suffered anxiety, frustration and distress. It’s a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith.”
“I’m disappointed on behalf of the other three applicants but I fully support them in their asking for a referral for their [appeals] to be heard in the [European court’s] grand chamber, and I wish them every success in the future to win.”
Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, which supported the cases, said: “We are delighted that the cross has been recognised and indeed that Nadia has won her case.”
In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane, she complained, sexual rights had been given priority over religious liberty: “[The judges said] that if an employer has an equalities policy and says there should be no discrimination in any way on the grounds of sexual orientation no matter what your Christian belief is that the sexual orientation rights win.”
A BA spokesman said Eweida had worked continuously for the company for 13 years. “Our own uniform policy was changed in 2007 to allow Miss Eweida and others to wear symbols of faith and she and other employees have been working under these arrangements.”
But the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission said it believed “the government should now look at the need to change the law to take the European court judgment into account”. In the meantime, it added, it would publish guidance for employers and employees,” to help them avoid further confusion and potentially costly litigation”.The archbishop of York, the Most Revd Dr John Sentamu, struck a more cautionary note, insisting that courts should not have any power to prevent individuals wearing religious symbols. “‘Christians and those of other faiths should be free to wear the symbols of their own religion without discrimination,” he said.
“The Equality Act 2010 encourages employers to embrace diversity – including people of faith. Whether people can wear a cross or pray with someone should not be something about which courts and tribunals have to rule.”