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European Court Rules on Religious Freedom Cases

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The court ruled in favor of the religious person in one out of the four cases


The cases were brought by four Christians of different denominations who argued that their right to manifest religious beliefs had been unjustifiably restricted, in breach of article nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to manifest religious belief in “worship, teaching, practice and observance”, subject only to such restrictions as are “prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

Only one applicant, Nadia Eweida, won her case.

Former British Airways employee Ms Eweida, a Coptic Christian born in Egypt in 1951, was sent home without pay in 2006 after a uniform modification revealed the small cross she had previously worn under her clothes. Directed to conceal it, she refused, arguing that BA allowed members of other faiths to wear religious symbols and clothing. BA eventually changed its uniform policy to allow staff to wear discreet religious symbols, but Mrs Eweida’s domestic attempts to recoup losses during the period of her unpaid leave were unsuccessful, as neither employment tribunals nor courts accepted that she had been discriminated against.

Ruling that Ms Eweida’s rights had indeed been unjustifiably infringed, the Court found 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.”

Former nurse Shirley Chaplin was less successful in a superficially similar case. In 2009, the then 55-year-old was asked by the Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation NHS Trust not to display the crucifix she had worn around her neck for than 30 years. The trust argued that – following a uniform modification – it posed a health and safety risk. Ms Chaplin rejected the trust’s suggestion that she wear her cross as a lapel pin, was moved to a desk job, and unsuccessfully took the trust to an employment tribunal in 2010.

Recognising Ms Chaplin’s general right to wear a crucifix as a symbol of her faith, the Court nonetheless concluded that health and safety concerns were paramount; recognising that it was not equipped to make decisions of clinical safety, it conceded that the trust’s judgment should be respected.

These two cases establish two important principles: the article nine right to manifest religious beliefs is not limited to practices that that might be deemed central or mandatory in a faith tradition. And employees have a general – but not absolute – right to manifest their religious convictions by wearing a symbol of their choice.

A third applicant argued not merely that her religious freedom had been infringed, but that her employers’ refusal to treat her differently from staff with different religious views constituted discrimination under article 14 of the Convention.

Lillian Ladele began working for London’s Islington Council in 1992, becoming a marriage registrar in 2002, when civil partnerships for same-sex couples did not exist in UK law. Before the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 was passed, Ms Ladele asked not to be designated a registrar of civil partnerships, believing that she could not reconcile such work with her religious beliefs. The Council refused, and changed her terms of employment, designating her and her fellow registrars as civil partnership registrars. Ms Ladele rearranged duties to avoid registering partnerships for a year or so, but was eventually disciplined after two gay colleagues said they felt victimised by her stance. Ladele responded by claiming she had suffered religious discrimination and harassment; her claims, initially upheld by an employment tribunal, were eventually overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal. The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court upheld the EAT’s ruling.
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