European court says U.K. equality laws trump personal religious beliefs

February 4, 2013

CANTERBURY, England

The European Court of Human Rights on Jan. 15 ruled that equality laws trump personal religious beliefs, rejecting three of four appeals filed by British Christians who were fired or disciplined for expressing religious beliefs in the workplace.

In what lawyers describe as “landmark rulings,” the court in Strasbourg, France, ruled that employers did not violate the religious rights of a registrar who refused to officiate for the civil partnership of a same-sex couple or of a counselor who was unwilling to offer sex therapy for gays.

Europe’s highest human rights court also rejected an appeal by a nurse whose hospital barred her from wearing a cross around her neck because it was a health hazard.

But in a fourth case, a British Airways clerk who was suspended for wearing a cross necklace on the job won her appeal and was awarded damages.

Nadia Eweida took the airline to an employment tribunal after claiming religious discrimination; British Airways maintained the cross was a breach of company uniform codes.

In Britain, her case was rejected by the employment tribunal, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, but the European judges ruled in her favor.

 “Delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld — people shouldn’t suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs,” British Prime Minister David Cameron responded on Twitter.

The court rejected three other cases: Nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was switched to a desk job after she refused to remove a crucifix that she wore with her uniform; marriage counselor Gary McFarlane, who was sacked for saying he might object to offering sex therapy to homosexuals; and registrar Lillian Ladele, who was disciplined when she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.

Shami Chakrambarti, director of the human rights group Liberty said: “Today’s judgment is an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense. Nadia Eweida wasn’t hurting anyone and she was perfectly capable of doing her job while wearing a small cross. British courts lost their way in her case and Strasbourg has actually acted more in keeping with our (British) traditions of tolerance.”

The U.S.-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which helped represent Eweida in British courts, said “Christian employees should not be singled out for discrimination. No one should have to hide their faith or act contrary to it.” The ADF called the other three rejections “extremely disappointing.”

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