British Airways Worker Wins Rights Court Ruling on Cross
By Erik Larson – Jan 15, 2013 7:01 AM ET
A British Airways (IAG) clerk who was sent home for wearing a cross to work won a judgment at the European Court of Human Rights over her claims that U.K. judges failed to protect her religious freedom when they ruled against her.
The court in Strasbourg, France, today rejected the claims of three other British Christians who alleged religious discrimination, including a nurse who wore a cross in violation of a hospital’s health rules and a city worker who refused to register civil partnerships of same-sex couples.
The BA employee, Nadia Eweida, was sent home in 2006 after deciding to wear her cross over her uniform instead of under it, according to the ruling. While the carrier changed its policy a year later and allowed her to openly wear the cross, it violated her religious freedoms protected under European law, said the court, which hears cases from dozens of countries.
“The big message here for employers is to assess the balance between the personal freedom requested and its likely impact on others,” Danielle Kingdon, an employment lawyer at Osborne Clarke, said in an e-mail. “The difficulty will, as always, be in avoiding unconscious bias.”
The decision followed months of increasing tensions between the human-rights court and the U.K., where politicians have railed against what they see as European interference in domestic legal matters. Prime Minister David Cameron said in July he would change British law if the court in France ruled against Eweida’s right to wear a cross at work.
In a posting on Twitter Inc.’s social-networking service, Cameron said he was pleased the “principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld” and that people “shouldn’t suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs.”
BA wasn’t a party in the case because Eweida sued the U.K. government over the court system’s failure to protect her rights. A British employment tribunal had rejected her case after finding wearing a cross isn’t a requirement of the Christian faith. The U.K. Court of Appeal also ruled against her and the U.K. Supreme Court declined to hear the claim.
“Our own uniform policy was changed in 2007 to allow Miss Eweida and others to wear symbols of faith, and she and other employees have been working under these arrangements for the last six years,” BA, a unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, said in an e-mailed statement.
The human-rights court said that, while BA’s effort to project a certain corporate image was “undoubtedly legitimate,” U.K. courts gave the company’s argument too much weight.
“Other BA employees had previously been authorized to wear items of religious clothing such as turbans and hijabs without any negative impact on BA’s brand or image,” the human-rights court wrote in a summary of today’s ruling.
Shirley Chaplin, the hospital employee, faced different circumstances because the facility’s ban on jewelry of any kind was specifically intended to protect the health and safety of the public, rather than an image, the court said.
“Hospital managers were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety than a court,” according to the ruling.
Today’s judgment also dealt with appeals from Lilian Ladele, who was fired by the Borough of Islington in London, and Gary McFarlane, who worked at relationship-counseling service Relate. Ladele refused to register gay couples seeking civil- partnership documents and McFarlane developed a religious “conflict” over his required work with gay people, according to the ruling.
The court backed both organizations because their policies “had the legitimate aim of securing the rights of others, such as same-sex couples,” which are protected under European law.
“Employees who serve the public have been sent a clear signal that promoting equal opportunities, and requiring them to act in a way which does not discriminate against service users, overrides their religious or philosophical beliefs at work,” Ray Silverstein, an employment lawyer at Browne Jacobson, said in an e-mail.
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