ECHR backs manifestation of religion at work
The applicants complained the sanctions they suffered breached their rights under articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights; the former expresses the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the latter says rights “shall be secured without discrimination on any ground” by the state.
Counsel for the British government argued the cases were not in violation of the convention. They said behaviour motivated or inspired by religion, but which was not an act of practice of religion, fell outside the protection of Article 9.
The court found in favour of Ms Eweida. It said the refusal of British Airways to allow her visibly wear her cross and chain was an interference with her right to manifest her religion. It found the British courts had not struck “a fair balance” between her rights and the employer’s wish to project a “certain corporate image”.
There was no evidence of “any real encroachment on the interests of others” and in those circumstances, the domestic authorities “failed sufficiently to protect” Ms Eweida’s rights. It did not find in favour of the other applicants.
It found Ms Chaplin had not been directly discriminated against as there was no evidence she had been treated less favourably than other colleagues. The refusal to allow her wear her cross and chain was an interference with her freedom to manifest religion, but it was to protect the health and safety of nurses and patients and was “necessary in a democratic society”. There was therefore no basis to find a violation of Article 14.
In the case of Ms Ladele, the court accepted her objection to participating in same-sex civil partnerships was motivated by her religious beliefs. It noted the local authority’s aim was to ensure equal opportunities for all and employees could not act in a way that discriminated against others.
The court had found in case law under Article 14, differences in treatment based on sexual orientation “required particularly serious reasons by way of justification”. Against this background, the aim of the local authority to secure the rights of others was legitimate, it said.
“The court generally allows national authorities a wide margin of appreciation when it comes to striking a balance between completing rights,” it said.
“In all the circumstances, the court does not consider that the national authorities . . . exceeded the margin of appreciation available to them.”
The court accepted that Mr McFarlane’s refusal to give sexual counselling to homosexual couples was a manifestation of his religion and the state was obliged to secure his rights. But it noted Mr McFarlane had enrolled on Relate’s training in psycho-sexual counselling knowing its equal opportunities policy.
The employer’s action was intended to secure its policy of providing a service without discrimination. The state authorities therefore benefited from the same “margin of appreciation” when deciding against Mr McFarlane as in the Ladele case.
“The court does not consider that this margin of appreciation was exceeded,” the court said.
*A chamber judgment is not final until three months after its delivery and provided it is not appealed to the grand chamber of the court.
The full judgment is available at echr.coe.int