Religious freedom in the workplace

Four cases involving religion have worked their way from the UK to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. These Christians claimed that they were discriminated against because of their religion. According to the BBC, the cases are:

Nadia Eweida, a Pentecostal Christian from Twickenham, south-west London, who was sent home by her employer British Airways in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross.

Devon-based nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was moved to a desk job by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital for similar reasons.

Gary McFarlane, a Bristol relationship counsellor, who was sacked by Relate after saying on a training course he might have had a conscientious objection to giving sex therapy advice to gay couples.

Registrar Lilian Ladele, who was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London.

Lawyers for the British government argued before the EHCR that employers had every right to regulate expressions of religion in the professional sphere.

I have no idea what the laws are that apply in the UK and in the EHCR, but on general principles, my own feeling is that in the first two cases the plaintiffs have some grounds for complaint. Wearing a necklace with a cross, if it is not a hazard in the workplace, seems harmless enough. But this has to be balanced with the right of a private employer (as in the first case of the above four) to enforce a uniform dress code.

I have no sympathy for the plaintiffs in the other two cases though. People who are hired to do a job that involves meeting the needs of the public should not be allowed to unilaterally decide which members of that public to serve and which to deny services.


  1. Kenbo says

    When “religious freedom” includes the right to discriminate against others, then no one has freedom. When will religious people understand this?


  2. Alverant says

    As nurses working with patients, dangling jewerly is a no-no whether or not it’s religiously themed jewerly. The first two plantiffs were told they could wear pins with crosses on them but they refused. Apparantly they think that being christian means they can ignore the saefty and hygine rules of the hospital.

  3. James says

    Two are public employees (the NHS nurse and the registrar).

    That aside, BA had a uniform policy which prohibited the employees wearing visible jewelry (unless it was specifically required as part of their religion). She was told she could continue to wear the cross as long as it remained hidden under her clothes. As it is in no way compulsory for christians to wear a cross in any form, let alone that it must be visible, she had no argument in law.

    The nurse’s case is a health and safety issue. As part of her duties she would be required to lift (or help to lift) patients in/out of bed. The approved method for doing so involved basically hugging them, so dangling jewelry is quite rightly deemed to be a risk both to the patient and herself through the possibility of either puncture wounds or entanglement with clothing (quite apart from the contamination risk). The hospital said she could either remove the jewelry or move to another role where it wasn’t a problem (the desk job).

    As far as I’m aware, in both cases the employer made reasonable efforts to accommodate the employee’s religious rights while maintaining the provision of the services which are the reason for their employment, but both employees refused any compromise.

  4. sumdum says

    But she works for an airline, not a hospital. If I remember correctly, they do allow employees to wear hijab if requested. If I remember correctly and it’s true, then it’s a pretty clear cut case of discrimination of one religion over another.

  5. Alverant says

    Last time I checked, a hijab isn’t jewerly. Also, as James pointed out, jewelry isn’t required by christianity making it optional. So one religion is not being favored. If christianity required women to wear something (like no clothing made of blended fabrics) then the airline would likely have accomidated her.

  6. Nathaniel Frein says

    The other concern with jewelry in a nursing environment is situations where the patient is uncooperative or even psychotic. Dangling jewelry is something the patient can grab.

  7. stonyground says

    Anyone commenting on this matter should be aware that it has been deliberately mis-represented in UK newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. The neclace wearers, an air hostess and a nurse, were in breach of dress codes that forbade dangly jewellery generally. Their claims, that their dangly crucifixes should somehow be exempt from the rules due to their religion, were quite rightly rejected. They were both offered the perfectly reasonable compromise of being allowed to wear a cross shaped lapel badge which they rejected. Anyone who is in full possession of the facts will understand why they keep losing in court, the fact is, they have no case. The well funded Christian Legal Centre keep on taking this matter to higher and higher courts. If they win this one it will be their first.

    With regard to the two who refuse to give equal service to gay people, they have a straw to clutch at because their terms of employment were changed without their consent. Having said this, I believe that both of them are black. Black people used to be treated as second class citizens in exactly the same way that gay people were until recent legislation made it illegal. Other people fought a hard battle on their behalf to get them recognised as fully human and gain them the equal rights to which they are fully entitled. They should be thouroughly ashamed of themselves that they now behave just as badly toward gays as the people who once oppressed black people.

  8. Kimpatsu says

    Mano, your sympathies are if anything completely the reverse of what they should be.
    In the first case, the BA employee Nadia Eidwala violated the uniform code. She was told she could wear the necklace but UNDER her regulation neckerchief, and she refused, saying that she wanted to display the crucifix prominently as a starting point for telling people about Xrist’s love. (IOW, she wanted to proselytise passengers during check-in.) She was moved to another post that did not involve customer interaction, and that’s when she sued.
    Shirley Caplin was a nurse, for whom ALL dangling jewellery is prohibited. She wanted a special exemption to the health and safety rules for her display of piety.
    McFarlane and Ladele, however, are in a bind. I agree they should seek alternative employment, and in the case of Mcfarlane definitely, because he went into this knowing that his job might require him to counsel same-sex couples, but Ladele was ALREADY a registrar when the law changed to permit same-sex civil partnerships. As such, it’s the job that changed from what it was when she was hired. of all four, IMHO, she is the only one with anything remotely approaching a case.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for these clarifications. It is hard to arrive at an informed judgment without knowing the full history of the cases and I am glad that you clarified the issue. I tend to agree with your conclusions.

    But even with Ladele, although the law changed on her after she got the job, it still seems like a very weak case. After all, we would not allow someone to not serve people of color simply because the Jim Crow laws were declared unconstitutional after they got a jobs.

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