Court defines limits for religious believers
The European Court of Human Rights has limited the right of religious believers to exercise their belief at work if it restricts the rights of others, even though it upheld the right safely to wear religious symbols on duty.
The Strasbourg’s court rulings came in four cases taken by four Britons, including Nadia Eweida, a Pentecostal Christian who was barred by British Airways in 2006 from wearing a visible gold cross while on duty. She left her job as a check-in attendant after being told to take it off because it breached the company’s uniform policy, though she returned to work a year later after the airline changed its rules. She was not paid for the time out of work.
She lost a succession of employment appeals hearing and court cases in Britain before she turned to Strasbourg, with one British judge saying that the wearing of a cross is not a requirement for a Christian.
Ruling in favour of Ms Eweida, the judges said British Airways had had a legitimate right to project a certain corporate image, but British courts had given this too much weight when they ruled against her.
“When I heard the verdict I was jumping for joy and saying, ‘Thank you, Jesus’,” said Ms Eweida, who was awarded €2,000 in damages for breaches to her rights under Article 9 of the Convention of Human Rights, along with another €30,000 in costs.
Last night, however, lawyers said the court’s decision to reject the cases taken by three other Britons – legal actions that had been opposed by the British government – was legally more significant.
Nurse Shirley Chaplin lost her action against the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust hospital, taken after she was moved from a geriatric ward to a desk job because she refused to take off a Confirmation crucifix she had worn for 30 years.
The hospital said the cross breached health and safety rules because it could have been grabbed by a patient, hurting Ms Chaplin – a judgment the court said was justified and “inherently more important”.
Judges also rejected cases brought by a marriage counsellor and a court registrar who had objected to giving sex counselling to, or marrying, gay couples, saying their objections were trumped by the greater right of others to protection against sex discrimination.