The European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled in the cases of four individuals who were unsuccessful in their claims in the UK courts for religious discrimination at work. 

All four applicants, who are practising Christians, brought claims relying on Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights. They claimed that UK law does not sufficiently protect their rights to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work. 

In relation to the claim of Ms Eweida, who had been prevented from wearing a cross visibly at work due to her employer’s uniform code, the Court held that there had been an interference with her right to manifest her religion. The code allowed a staff member to wear jewellery for religious reasons if it could be covered or if prior approval had been sought. When Ms Eweida decided to wear the cross openly, she was suspended and remained at home until the company’s policy was changed. The Court had to consider whether a fair balance had been struck between Ms Eweida’s desire to manifest her religious belief and her employer’s desire to portray a corporate image. The fact that employees of other religions had been permitted to wear religious items such as turbans and hijabs without any negative effect and that the company had proceeded to amend its uniform policy, showed that the earlier prohibition had not been necessary. Therefore, Ms Eweida’s right to manifest her religion had not been adequately protected. 

The Court, however, did not uphold the claim of Ms Chaplin, a nurse in a hospital. Ms Chaplin was asked to remove the cross around her neck for health and safety reasons. Hospital managers in such situations were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety and therefore the request to remove the cross had not been disproportionate.

The claims of Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane were also dismissed. Ms Ladele had been employed as a Registrar from 1992 to 2009. When the Civil Partnership Act came into force in 2005 she was told that she would need to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies. She refused to do so and was subsequently dismissed. Mr McFarlane was an experienced relationships counsellor who indicated during a training course that if the situation ever arose he might object to providing sex therapy to same-sex couples on account of his Christian faith. He was dismissed for gross misconduct. 

In respect of both these claims the Court held that the most important factor to be taken into account was that both employers had policies to promote equal treatment of others and were pursuing the legitimate aim of securing that equal treatment. The Court held that the right balance had been struck between the employers’ aim and the applicants’ right to manifest their religion and therefore the two applicants were not successful.

The Court’s decision indicates that employers should accommodate an employee’s expression of their religious beliefs in the workplace as long as it is reasonable and does not impact on the rights of others. Employers need therefore to strike a fair balance between religious beliefs and the requirements of the workplace.