ECHR Rules in Religious Discrimination Claims

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has handed down its rulings in four UK cases in which Christian employees claimed to have suffered discrimination at work on account of their religious beliefs. Two of the cases concerned women who were prevented from wearing a crucifix at work and two involved employees who were expected to perform work that was inconsistent with their religious beliefs.

Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects an individual’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This includes a right to manifest one’s beliefs, subject only to such limitations that are ‘in accordance with law’ and are ‘necessary in a democratic society’.

The judges ruled in favour of Nadia Eweida, the British Airways employee who lost her case at the Court of Appeal that she had been the victim of religious discrimination after she was suspended for refusing to conceal her cross when asked to do so as she regarded it as an important visible expression of her faith.

Ms Eweida was reinstated after BA changed its uniform policy to allow staff to display a symbol of their faith. However, she was of the view that the airline had been guilty of having different rules for different minority groups, and pursued her case through the courts.

The ECHR ruled that the UK courts had erred in attaching too much importantance to BA’s desire to present a particular image. There was no evidence that the wearing of religious clothing, such as turbans, by adherents of other faiths had negatively affected BA’s brand. In this particular case, Ms Eweida’s rights under Article 9 had been breached.

The ECHR rejected the claim of Shirley Chaplin, however. Mrs Chaplin, a former nurse, had been asked not to wear her crucifix necklace by her employer, the Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation NHS Trust, for health and safety reasons. When she refused, she was moved to a desk job that did not involve working with patients. The ECHR held that although her right to manifest her religion had to be taken into consideration, it was outweighed by the need to ensure health and safety in a hospital ward. There was therefore no breach of her rights under Article 9.

Lillian Ladele, a former registrar who was disciplined by Islington Borough Council after she refused to carry out civil partnership ceremonies, lost her action, as did Gary McFarlane, a counsellor for Relate who was dismissed after he expressed concerns about the possibility of having to carry out relationship work involving same-sex sexual issues. In reaching its decision, the ECHR concluded that national authorities are allowed ‘a wide margin of appreciation’ in exactly how they achieve a balance between competing rights under the Convention. The scope of this margin will vary according to the circumstances, the subject matter and the background and, in these cases, it was not exceeded.