Christian cross 'discrimination': Cameron 'delight' after airline worker wins landmark case

The rulings by the European Court of Human Rights today on Christians who claimed they suffered discrimination at work has thrown British equality law into the limelight once again.

Christian airline worker, Nadia Eweida, won a landmark case in Strasbourg after being forced out of her job for wearing a cross in breach of company uniform codes.

However, three other British Christians claiming discrimination had their cases rejected by the same court.

Despite the rulings, both human rights groups and David Cameron welcomed the judgements, with the Prime Minister tweeting he was 'delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld'.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: "Today's judgment is an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense."

Miss Eweida, from Twickenham, south-west London, was sent home in September 2006 for displaying a small silver cross on a chain around her neck which she wore as a personal expression of her faith.

She took British Airways to a tribunal but a panel rejected her claims and ruled she was not a victim of religious discrimination.

The decision was upheld by The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court before Miss Eweida took her fight to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

She returned to work in customer services at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 in February 2007, after BA changed its uniform policy on visible items of jewellery.

At the ECHR, Miss Eweida argued BA's action contravened articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibit religious discrimination and allow "freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

Lawyers for the Government, which contested the claim, argued her rights were only protected in private.

But judges today ruled there had been a violation of article nine (freedom of religion), by five votes to two.

Nurse Shirley Chaplin, 57, was switched to a desk job after refusing to remove a crucifix she wore with her uniform for around 30 years.

The ECHR judges rejected Mrs Chaplin's case after they found she was asked to remove the cross for health and safety purposes.

While they agreed the refusal to allow her to remain in a nursing position was an "interference with her freedom to manifest her religion", they said the decision was necessary to protect the health and safety of nurses and patients.

And they concluded hospital managers were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety than a court.

Marriage counsellor Gary McFarlane, 51, lost his job after refusing to provide sex therapy to gay couples.

The ruling found against Mr McFarlane on the grounds that he took on the role at Relate in the knowledge that clients could not be divided up in accordance with their sexual orientation.

It concluded the company's action was designed to enable it to provide a service without discrimination.

And registrar Lillian Ladele said she could not conduct same-sex civil partnerships "as a matter of religious conscience".

Miss Ladele's case was rejected after judges decided Islington Council's action was "legitimate" given it was also obliged to consider the rights of same-sex couples.

Commentators said that, in the three rejected cases, the British courts had 'got the balance right'.

Adam Wagner, a barrister specialising in human rights, said: "The Court accepted that states enjoy a wide discretion as to how to protect against discrimination. In one case, involving a British Airways worker, it found that the UK courts had got the balance wrong.

"There was, it ruled, insufficient evidence that BA's corporate image was harmed by workers wearing religious crosses.

"But in three other cases, the UK courts got the balance right.

"In a case involving a healthcare worker who wanted to wear a religious cross, the court accepted that the NHS Trust's health and safety concerns were justified.

"In two other cases, involving a registrar and a marriage counsellor who refused to provide services to homosexual couples, the court found that protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was a justified aim, and the workers religious rights had been limited in a proportionate way.

"The key point is that religious rights are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. But in some carefully defined cases, an employer can restrict those rights.

Gay rights charity Stonewall also welcomed the rulings, adding: "Today’s judgement rightly confirms that it’s completely unacceptable in 2013 for public servants to pick and choose who they want to serve on the basis of sexual orientation."

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