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9th Aug 2020

Airline worker's rights breached by crucifix ban, court says

  • The Court judgement offers qualified support for religious rights at work. (Photo: EUobserver)

The rights of a British Airways check-in worker to express her faith were infringed when she was preventing from wearing a crucifix while working, according to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

In a landmark judgement on religious freedom of expression on Tuesday (15 January), seven ECHR judges ruled by a five to two majority that Nadia Eweida's right to freedom of religion had been breached. They also awarded her €2,000 in compensation and €30,000 in legal costs. The cases were brought to the court to appeal against judgements in the UK's domestic courts.

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In a statement, the Strasbourg-based court judged that "a fair balance had not been struck between, on the one side of the scales, her desire to manifest her religious belief and to be able to communicate that belief to others, and on the other side of the scales, her employer's wish to project a certain corporate image (no matter how legitimate that aim might be)".

The judges added that other employees had been allowed to wear hijabs and turbans, noting that "the fact that the company had amended the uniform code to allow for visible wearing of religious symbolic jewellery showed that the earlier prohibition had not been of crucial importance."

It added that the British courts had given "too much weight" to the corporate interests of British Airways.

However, the Strasbourg-based court threw out the claims of three other Christian applicants who had also claimed that they had been victims of religious discrimination, including a case similar to the Elweida judgement in which Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, had been asked to remove her crucifix when working on a hospital ward.

In the case of Ms Chaplin, however, the judges were unanimous in finding that "the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward, was inherently of much greater importance" than in Ms Eweida's case.

Meanwhile, the court rejected the appeals of two complainants, Lillian Ladele, a civil registrar dismissed from her job after refusing to officiate at civil ceremonies for same-sex couples, and Gary McFarlane, a counsellor fired for refusing to offer sex therapy to same-sex couples.

Despite this, the judges from Macedonia and Malta criticised the majority ruling against Ladele, asserting that her employer, London's Islington borough authority, should have respected the "cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance of her conscientious objection". Judges Vucinic and De Gaetano accused the Borough of "blinkered political correctness…which clearly favoured 'gay rights' over fundamental human rights" in forcing Ladele's dismissal.

The applicants can still appeal to the Grand Chamber of the Court before the judgements are finalised.

The ECHR is not an EU-body, instead serving as arbiter on the Convention on Human Rights agreed by the 47 member countries of the Council of Europe.

The rulings prompted a mixed response from religious organisations, with secular groups claiming that the court ruling meant that religious rights could not be used to circumvent equal treatment.

Roger Kiska, senior legal counsel to the Alliance Defending Freedom, said that the "victory for one of the Christian applicants is a significant step forward for religious freedom in Europe.” However, he added that it was “extremely disappointing that the Court ruled against the three other applicants and it is hoped that they will appeal the decision to the Grand Chamber of the Court.”

For his part, Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the UK's National Secular Society, commented that "this ruling demonstrates that UK equality law is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and that there is no need to change UK law." He added that "any attempt to do so by the Government would therefore signal a clear desire to give privileged treatment to religious believers."

Meanwhile, LGBT campaigners said that the Strasbourg-court had ruled that religious beliefs could not be cited to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie In't Veld, vice-president of the European Parliament's LGBT intergroup, said that the Court had "showed conclusively that the principle of equality and equal treatment cannot be circumvented with a simple reference to religion."

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