LONDON (AP) — British Airways discriminated against a devoutly Christian airline employee by making her remove a crucifix at work, Europe’s highest court ruled Tuesday. But the court rejected discrimination cases by three other Christian claimants.
BA check-in clerk Nadia Eweida sparked a national debate in Britain over religion in public life when she was sent home in November 2006 for refusing to comply with rules banning employees from wearing visible religious symbols.
BA eventually changed its policy and Eweida returned to work, but she pursued a claim of religious discrimination, seeking damages and compensation for lost wages.
British courts backed BA, but Eweida went to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Strasbourg, France-based court ruled Tuesday that the airline’s policy “amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion.”
Eweida, 60, said when she heard the verdict “I was jumping for joy and saying ‘thank you Jesus.’”
“It’s a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith,” she said.
Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that he was “delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld.”
But the court ruled against Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was told to remove a crucifix necklace at work. The judges said Chaplin’s employer banned necklaces on health and safety grounds, and so asking her to remove the symbol was not excessive.
Chaplin said she was “very disappointed” by the ruling.
“But I am gratified that the cross has been recognized as a Christian symbol,” she said. “I think that will give a lot of Christian workers good heart that they can show their faith in the workplace.”
The judges also struck down claims by Lillian Ladele, a local authority registrar who said her Christian faith prevented her from overseeing same-sex civil partnerships, and marriage counselor Gary McFarlane, who refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples.
In both cases, the court said employers had been entitled to strike a balance between claimants’ rights to manifest their religious beliefs and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said the verdicts were “an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense.”
She said that Eweida “had just as much a right to express her faith as a Sikh man in a turban or a Muslim woman with a headscarf.”
“However the court was also right to uphold judgments in other cases that employers can expect staff not to discriminate in the discharge of duties at work.”
The court’s rulings are binding on the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the continent’s human rights watchdog.
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