The European Court of Human Rights this week has ruled that English courts breached a British woman’s freedom of religion rights to wear a crucifix - a visible symbol of her faith - in the workplace.

However, in three other judgments on the right to manifest religion in the workplace the Strasbourg court endorsed the English courts’ original findings.

In the first case, British Airways (BA) employee Nadia Eweida was told that the company’s uniform policy required staff members to conceal religious items that they had to wear under their clothes.

Eweida (pictured) lodged a claim of religious discrimination with the employment tribunal, which found that the visible wearing of a cross was not a requirement of the Christian faith, but was a matter of personal choice, and that she had failed to establish that BA’s uniform policy had put Christians at a disadvantage.

Her appeal to the Court of Appeal was rejected and, in May 2010, the Supreme Court refused leave to appeal.

However, Strasbourg today ruled that the domestic courts had not struck a fair balance between BA’s legitimate wish to project a certain corporate image and Eweida’s right to manifest her religion. It ordered the UK to pay her €2,000 in non-pecuniary damage and €30,000 in costs and expenses.

The second case concerned nurse Shirley Chaplin, whose manager told her that wearing a crucifix outside her uniform was a health and safety risk to patients, and instructed her to remove it. An employment tribunal rejected her claim.

Strasbourg also found against her, finding that hospital managers were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety than a court.

The third and fourth cases concerned births, deaths and marriages registrar Lillian Ladele and Relate counsellor Gary McFarlane, whose Christian beliefs hold that homosexual relationships are contrary to God’s law.

They were both dismissed for failing to carry out duties that they considered condoned homosexuality, namely civil partnership ceremonies and psychosexual therapy between same-sex couples. Strasbourg ruled that the applicants’ employers were right to promote equal opportunities and require employees not to discriminate against others on the grounds of sexual orientation.

The judgment potentially means that in future these decisions will be subjective, making it difficult for employers to make an objective decision. It may be that the legislature will need to step in with regulation regarding which rights have greater weight in which circumstances.

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