16 January 2013 – The European Court of Human Rights has heard four cases of religious discrimination from the UK, of which three were found not to be violating the rights of the employee. However, the court ruled in favour of British Airways worker Nadia Eweida who was deemed to have had her rights violated under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
HR experts Croner have advised employers to have robust, justifiable reasons for restricting the wearing of displays of religious faith such as crosses.
According to Liz Iles, Senior Employment Consultant at Croner:
“The decisions in the case of Eweida & Others v UK today shows that there must be a balance between an employee’s wish to display their religious beliefs and a sound rationale why they might be restricted.”
What this means in practice is that employers must have good justifiable reasons why, for example, employees can’t wear a cross at work. A good example of this is demonstrated by a connected case heard at the ECHR today. Nurse Shirley Chaplin was told by her employer that she couldn’t wear her cross around her neck as it posed a health and safety risk. This was held to be a legitimate justifiable reason.
“The ECHR decision in the case of Nadia Eweida was based on special circumstances, including the fact that a discrete cross would not have adversely affected British Airways’ public image.”
While these court judgements may be hard for bosses to interpret when making controversial decisions, for many employers it will make it easier to agree to employee requests rather than risk a complaint. However, employers are advised to explore all options available to them as alternatives when faced with an objection from an employee, especially as sensitive as one related to their religion or belief.
“What is not apparent in the ECHR decision is the position in relation to third parties. For example, it may be that a member of the public or a colleague might be offended by the display of religious faith and may themselves make complaints.”