Court awards €32,000 after Christian workplace human rights protest

In a decision published today, judges have awarded €32,000 to a British Christian who complained about a workplace breach of her human rights.

The European Court of Human Rights declared that the right to manifest religion at work is protected but must be balanced against rights of others in its decision in the case of Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom (application nos. 48420/10, 59842/10, 51671/10 and 36516/10).

In its judgement, which is not final, the European Court of Human Rights held:

by five votes to two, that there had been a violation of Article 9 (freedom of religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights as concerned Nadia Eweida;

unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 9 of the European Convention, taken alone or in conjunction with Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination), as concerned Shirley Chaplin and Gary McFarlane; and

by five votes to two, that there had been no violation of Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9 as concerned Lilian Ladele.

All four applicants are practising Christians. As just satisfaction, the court held that the United Kingdom was to pay Nadia Eweida 2,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage and EUR 30,000 for costs and expenses.

Eweida, a British Airways employee, and Chaplin, a geriatrics nurse, complained that their employers placed restrictions on their visibly wearing Christian crosses around their necks while at work. Ladele, a
Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and McFarlane, a Relate counsellor complained about their dismissal for refusing to carry out certain of their duties which they considered would condone homosexuality.

The Court did not consider that the lack of explicit protection in UK law to regulate the wearing of religious clothing and symbols in the workplace in itself meant that the right to manifest religion was breached, since the issues could be and were considered by the domestic courts in the context of discrimination claims brought by the applicants.

In Eweida’s case, the court held that on one side of the scales was Eweida’s desire to manifest her religious belief. On the other side of the scales was the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image. While this aim was undoubtedly legitimate, the domestic courts accorded it too much weight.

As regards Chaplin, the importance for her to be allowed to bear witness to her Christian faith by wearing her cross visibly at work weighed heavily in the balance. However, the reason for asking her to remove the cross, namely the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward, was inherently more important than that which applied in respect of Eweida and the hospital managers were well placed to make decisions about clinical safety.

In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane, it could not be said that national courts had failed to strike a fair balance when they upheld the employers’ decisions to bring disciplinary proceedings. In each case the employer was pursuing a policy of nondiscrimination against service-users, and the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation was also protected under the convention.

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