THE European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK failed to protect Nadia Eweida, a Christian employee at British Airways (BA), from suffering discrimination at work in a landmark departure from previous decisions.
Ms Eweida, a check-in clerk at BA, was prevented from wearing a cross at work due to BA’s uniform policy. She had previously failed with her religious discrimination claim before domestic courts and tribunals.
BA’s argument was that they wished to project a certain corporate image for the firm and initially the Court of Appeal agreed. Controversially however, the European Court interfered with the Court of Appeal’s decision that BA’s uniform policy was justified.
At the same time as this case, the European Court rejected the complaints of three other Christian employees: Mrs Chaplin, a nurse whose employer prevented her from wearing a crucifix on hospital wards because of health and safety; Ms Ladele, a registrar who was dismissed by a council for refusing to conduct civil ceremonies; and Mr McFarlane, who was dismissed by Relate for refusing to counsel same-sex couples.
Each of the employees argued that their employers’ actions breached their human right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” which, in some cases, constituted religious discrimination.
In upholding Ms Eweida’s complaint, the European Court has departed from previous decisions. This is likely to have a significant impact on UK law concerning religion or belief in the workplace. However, the European Court emphasised that religious freedom “is primarily a matter of individual thought and conscience”. It is likely that this decision will lead tribunals to take a very broad brush approach to “group disadvantage” in future indirect discrimination cases.
The message from this case is that “corporate image” is unlikely to justify an employer preventing an employee manifesting their religious belief. However, if an employer has genuine health and safety reasons for preventing such a manifestation, its justification argument might well succeed.
Employers will be pleased to learn that The Equality and Human Rights Commission has announced it will be working with employers and religious groups to help them interpret the European Court’s decision.
:: Clare Sample is a solicitor in the employment team at North East law firm Dickinson Dees.