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‘You can’t wear that here’

When a religious believer wears a religious symbol to work can their employer object? The question brings corporate dress codes and expressions of religious belief into sharp conflict. The employee can marshal discrimination and human rights law on the one side, whereas the employer may argue that conspicuous religion makes for bad business.

The issue reached the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 in a group of cases (Eweida and Others v. United Kingdom), following a lengthy and unsuccessful domestic legal campaign, brought by a group of employees who argued their right of freedom of religion and belief (under Article 9 of the Convention) had not been protected when the UK courts favoured their employers’ interests.

Nadia Eweida, an airline check-in clerk, and Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, had been refused permission by their respective employers, British Airways and an NHS trust, to wear a small cross on a necklace so that it was visible to other people. The employer’s rationale in each case was rather different. British Airways wanted to maintain a consistent corporate image so that no ‘customer-facing staff’ should be permitted to wear jewellery for any reason. The NHS trust argued that there was a potential health and safety risk if jewellery were worn by nursing staff – in Ms Chaplin’s case a disturbed patient might ‘seize the cross’ and harm either themselves or indeed Ms Chaplin.

Both applicants argued that their sense of religious obligation to wear a cross outweighed the employer’s normal discretion in setting a uniform policy. They also argued that their respective employers had also been inconsistent because their uniform policies made a number of specific accommodations for members of minority faiths, such as Muslims and Sikhs.

A major difficulty for both Eweida and Chaplin was the risk that their cross-wearing could be dismissed as a personal preference rather than a protected manifestation of their beliefs. After all many – probably most – Christians do not choose to wear the cross. The UK domestic courts found that the practice was not regarded as a mandatory religious practice (applying a so-called ‘necessity’ test) but rather one merely ‘motivated’ by religion and not therefore eligible for protection. This did not help either Eweida or Chaplin as both believed passionately that they had an obligation to wear the cross to attest to their faith (in Chaplin’s case this was in response to a personal vow to God).

Image Credit: “Wooden Rosary Necklace”, Photo by starbright, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.

The other major difficulty for both applicants was that the Court had also historically accepted a rather strange argument that people voluntarily surrender their right to freedom of religion and belief in the workplace when they enter into an employment contract, and so the employer has discretion to set its policies without regard to interfering with its employees religious practices. If an employee found this too burdensome, then he or she could protect their rights by resigning and finding another job. This argument, ignoring the realities of the labour market and imposing a very heavy burden on religious employees, has been a key reason why so few ‘workplace’ claims have been successful before the European Court.

Arguably the most significant aspect of the judgment was that the religious liberty questions were in fact considered by the Court rather than being dismissed as being inapplicable in the workplace (as the government and the National Secular Society had both argued). The Court specifically repudiated both the necessity test and the doctrine of ‘voluntary surrender’ of Article 9 rights at work. As a result, it has opened the door both to applications for protection for a much wider group of religious practices in the future and for claims relating to employment. From a religious liberty perspective this is surely something to welcome.

Nadia Eweida’s application was successful on its merits. It is now clear therefore that an employer cannot over-ride the religious conscience of its staff due to the mere desire for uniformity. However, Chaplin was unsuccessful, the Court essentially finding that ‘health and safety’ concerns provided a legitimate interest allowing the employer to over-ride religious manifestation. This is disappointing, particularly since evidence was presented that the health and safety risks of a nurse wearing a cross were minimal and that, in this case, Chaplin was prepared to compromise to reduce them still further. Hopefully this aspect of the judgment (unnecessary deference to national authorities in the realm of health and safety) will be revisited in future.

Whether that happens or not it is clear that religious expressions in the workplace now need to be approached differently after the European Court’s ruling. The idea that employees must leave their religion at the door has been dealt a decisive blow From now on, if corporate policy over-rides employees’ religious beliefs, then employers will be under a much greater obligation to demonstrate why, if at all, this is necessary.

Featured Image Credit: “DSC_7732”, Photo by Dave, CC by SA 2.0, via flickr.

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