You may have heard about the European Court of Human Right, which ruled this week that British Airways unfairly reprimanded Nadia Eweida back in 2007 for wearing a Christian cross while working at a check-in desk. It seems BA was trying to keep a single corporate image with strict guidelines on what could and could not be worn with the uniform. However, it turned out that the guidelines were not absolute and were changed in 2007 for other religious allowances, such as a Muslim hijab or the Sikh turban. The result was that the high court found Eweida’s reprimand and reassignment off the check-in desk to be unfair.
Fox News, of course, trumped it as “British Airways Employee Wins Discrimination Case After Being Sent Home for Wearing a Cross at Work,” while CNN more accurately headlined “Split ruling on discrimination against UK Christians.”
You see, despite the Fox News headline, there were actually four cases heard together. Eweida’s was the only one that went in favor to the defendant. The other three cases stood.
In particular, Shirley Chaplin was banned from wearing a cross in her job as a clinical-care nurse for safety reasons. Lilian Ladele, a Borough Registrar, was fired for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples, and Gary McFarlane, a marriage counselor for a national federated charity, was fired for refusing giving sex therapy advice to gay couples. All three of these actions were upheld by the courts.
The National Secular Society in the UK was pleased with the overall outcome, writing “NSS welcomes European Court of Human Rights ruling on ‘religious discrimination’ cases“. NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood said:
“First and foremost, this ruling demonstrates that UK equality law is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and that there is no need to change UK law. Any attempt to do so by the Government would therefore signal a clear desire to give privileged treatment to religious believers, and would be robustly challenged.
“In the cases of the registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships and the counsellor who wouldn’t counsel gay couples – the principle of non-discrimination against gay people has been upheld. If they had won these cases, it would have driven a coach and horses through the equality laws. The rights of gay people to fair and equal treatment would have been kicked back by decades.
“It is always better if employers can reach some kind of accommodation with their staff on these issues, and in the vast majority of cases, they do. But when employees refuse to carry out the duties that their job entails, it is reasonable for employers to discipline them. Religious people who feel elements of their job go against their conscience can always find employment that better matches their needs. That is true religious freedom.
“In the case of Eweida, it is a very limited victory which simply means that if employers want to prevent an employee wearing religious symbol for corporate image purposes, they must prove that their image is negatively affected by such manifestations of belief. In the case of Chaplin we are pleased that the court has acknowledged that employers are better placed than the court to decide if jewelry is a health and safety risk and did not support the idea of blanket permission to wear religious symbols in the workplace.”
So in the three strongest cases, the court said religion must be a private matter and should not interfere with work. Barry Duke from the UK Freethinkers is also relieved. Without reasonable constraints on religious wear, you would hate think how people might come dressed to work.