In contrast with the UK courts – which didn’t see the cross as a “requirement” of the Christian faith – the European Court has said that the way a belief is manifested only needs to be “intimately linked” to the belief. Once that is established, the employer will need to justify any policy which does not allow the employee to manifest his or her belief in the workplace. As British Airways discovered, the defence of “corporate image” may not be enough. Understandably, employers might think the best way to maintain workplace harmony is to limit overt signs of religious beliefs while at work (across all faiths), but this will be far harder to justify in light of Nadia Eweida’s case. Employers will need to be more aware of the issues involved in balancing the rights of employees wishing to express their beliefs at work. This could create operational difficulties for employers and potential workplace tensions where employees have differing views.
Chris Fisher is an employment partner at Mayer Brown.
Nadia Eweida was suspended from her job for wearing a small cross on a chain round her neck. But wearing a small cross on a chain around her neck – as an expression of her Christian faith – was very important to her and her belief. Unlike the courts here, the European Court of Human Rights realised that it was her view of her religious obligation that mattered, and persuasive reasons were needed to prevent her wearing her cross. As British Airways subsequently agreed to change its uniform policy, it was very hard to see why the initial ban was ever necessary. By contrast, in the similar case of NHS nurse Shirley Chaplin, the interests of patient safety were justification for refusing her permission to wear a cross on a necklace. The Strasbourg court took a commonsense approach to the two cases. But it also took a principled one, and reminded us all of the importance of religious tolerance.
James Welch is legal director at Liberty.