On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that British Airways violated the religious rights of one of its employees when they told her she could not wear a cross to work.
In 2006, Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian, was told that she was not permitted to wear a cross to work as it violated the British Airways uniform requirements. The airline changed its policy in 2007 to allow its employees to wear symbols of faith. Nonetheless, the court ruled that Eweida’s religious rights had been violated.
ZENIT spoke with Peter Smith, a coordinator with Catholic Voices in the UK, about the ruling, and what it means for the state of religious freedom in the country.
“On the one hand, you’ve got this right to religious freedom,” Smith explained, “and on the other hand you’ve got this desire for an employer to maintain professionalism. Was it proportionate, then, to ban crosses in order to make their staff look professional? And the answer is no, it wasn’t. That’s why she won.”
Smith continued: “A lot of accommodation is made for other symbols of faith, and it’s amazing how employers think that wearing a cross is not something that they should respect.”
“It’s great to see the court has recognized that it is a protected right for the person to wear a cross, and to manifest their belief publicly through the symbols that they wear – for example, in the same way that a hijab or a turban is a sign of a Muslim or a Sikh.”
The court, however, did not rule in favor of three other religious discrimination cases which were being heard alongside Eweida’s case.
Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, was transferred to a desk job when she refused to remove a cross necklace, one which she had worn to work for 30 years. The ECHR ruled in favor of the hospital, saying that it had the right to impose such a requirement in order to protect the health and safety of nurses and patients.
“They were balancing the right of religious freedom against the health and safety needs of being a nurse, and the court said two things: first, it is acceptable for somebody to say ‘we think that wearing a cross around your neck might be a choking hazard – a patient might grab it and hurt you – or it could transmit disease,'” said Smith.
The other two cases heard by the court pertained to conscientious objection when providing certain services to same-sex couples.
— Gary McFarlane, a relationship counselor and sex therapist who was dismissed from his place of work when, for religious reasons, he refused to provide therapy to same-sex couples.
— Lillian Ladele, a civil marriage registrar for a council in central London. When the government ruled that same-sex couples could obtain civil partnerships in 2004, Ladele refused to grant civil partnerships to same-sex couples on account of her religious beliefs. The council informed Ladele that she must serve as registrar to same-sex couples seeking civil partnerships or be fired.
The ECHR ruled against both McFarlane and Ladele.
Smith admits that cases involving conscientious objection are much more complicated than those pertaining to the right to wear religious symbols. “We don’t have a first amendment [in the UK], like in the United States. We don’t have strong religious freedom protections.”