Crucifixes, Counselling and Civil Partnerships

Today's judgment in the case of Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom demonstrates the complex nature of decisions that must be made when balancing the right to manifest religion at work and the rights of others. 

All four applicants are practising Christians and complained that their right to manifest their religion had been infringed: (1) Ms Eweida (a British Airways employee), (2) Ms Chaplin (a geriatrics nurse) complained that their employers placed unfair restrictions on wearing Christian crosses whilst at work. (3) Ms Ladele (a Registrar of Marriages) and (4) Mr McFarlane (a Relate Counsellor) complained about their dismissal for refusing to carry out duties which they considered would condone homosexuality. The judgment flags up critical considerations for all employers; these are summarised below:

(1) Mrs Eweida is a Christian and was employed by British Airways to check in passengers, she was required to wear a high necked shirt with no visible jewellery.

  • Policy stipulated that approval must be requested to openly display a particular garment for religious reasons. 
  • Mrs Eweida wore her cross under her uniform (this was allowed) but then decided to show her commitment her faith by wearing her cross on display.
  • In September 2006, British Airways sent her home without pay until she agreed to comply with their uniform code.
  • In February 2007, Mrs Eweida returned to her employment when British Airways changed their uniform policy so that religious symbols such as the star of David and the cross were given immediate authorisation.

(2) Ms Chaplin was a qualified nurse from 1989 - 2010.

  • Her employer introduced new uniforms which included V necks.
  • Ms Chaplin's manager asked her to remove her crucifix that she wore on a chain around her neck.
  • Ms Chaplin sought approval to continue wearing her crucifix which was refused because it could cause an injury or harm if it came into contact with an open wound.
  • In November 2009, Ms Chaplin was moved to a temporary position which ceased to exist in July 2010.

In both of the cases, the Mrs Eweida and Ms Chaplin were claiming discrimination on the grounds of their religion.

(3) Ms Ladele was a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages from 1992 - 2009

  • The Civil Partnership Act came into force in 2005 and as a result, Ms Ladele was required to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies between homosexual couples.
  • Ms Ladele refused to sign an amended contract because she felt she would be condoning homosexuality. Consequently, disciplinary proceedings were brought.
  • Her employer contended that Ms Ladele was in breach of Islington Council's equality and diversity policy by refusing to work with homosexual couples.
  • Ms Ladele argued that the civil ceremonies for same sex couples could have been carried out by a more willing employee.
  • Her contract was subsequently terminated.

(4) Mr McFarlane was a Counsellor for Relate. He started a post graduate diploma in psycho-sexual therapy which aims to improve couple's sexual activity.

  • Concerns were expressed by Mr McFarlane's supervisor and colleagues that there was a conflict between his religious beliefs and his work with same sex couples.
  • In January 2008, Mr McFarlane was subjected to a disciplinary investigation.
  • In March 2008, he was dismissed for gross misconduct on the grounds that he had agreed to comply with Relate's equal opportunities policy without any intention of doing so.

In Mrs Eweida's case, the desire to protect British Airways' corporate image was undoubtedly a legitimate aim. The problem was that the UK courts had afforded British Airways' aim too much weight and so held that Mrs Eweida's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion had been breached. Previously, British Airways had authorised the wearing of turbans and hijabs and had not considered this to negatively impact their brand. Amending their uniform policy suggested that the earlier prohibition was not considered crucial.

In Ms Chaplin's case, the importance for her to prove her Christian faith by wearing her cross was balanced against the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward. Given that hospital managers are well placed to make decisions about clinical safety, the reason for asking her to remove the cross was legitimate, more important and her human rights were not violated.   

In both Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane's case, their employers were pursuing a policy of non-discrimination against service users. Despite the employee’s view that it would be incompatible with their faith to work with homosexuals, it must not be forgotten that the rights of same sex couples is also protected under the same legislation. The employers' policies were in place to promote equal opportunities to avoid acting in a way which discriminated against others and so, the employers had struck the right balance in securing the rights of others when bringing the disciplinary proceedings.

The Court's decision emphasises the importance of freedom of religion. However, when an individual's faith and desire to observe that faith conflicts with the rights of others, some restrictions can be made. The decision further highlights the importance of having an effective dress code and equal opportunities policy in place and making risk assessed responses to any challenges. Essentially, the case endorses an approach which balances one person’s right (say, to hold and express their faith) with the impact that may have on colleagues, customers and their employer.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mark Hammerton

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.