Does UK law adequately protect employees religious beliefs from discrimination?

In Eweida & Others v UK, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) held that in most situations it does.

In different cases, four employee's brought claims against their employer's under the Religion or Belief Regulations.  They claimed that their employer's had failed to protect their religious beliefs, referring to Article 9 and/or 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Article 9 provides "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance."

Mrs Eweida worked for British Airways (BA) as part of the check in team.  She wished to express her religious beliefs by wearing a silver cross necklace around her neck.  BA refused to allow her to wear the cross, arguing that it was contrary to its uniform policy.  Mrs Eweida claimed indirect discrimination; however, failed on the basis of not being able to show that any other Christians had felt disadvantaged due to BA's policy.  Furthermore, exposing a cross was not a requirement of the Christian faith, but rather a personal choice.

Mrs Chaplin was a clinical nurse who wished to wear a crucifix on a necklace as expression of her beliefs.  As with the Eweida case, the crucifix did not comply with the employer's uniform policy.  Mrs Chaplin also brought a claim based on indirect discrimination and like Mrs Eweida, she too failed in proving that the uniform policy placed Christian's, as a whole, at a disadvantage.  In addition, the policy could be objectively justified on health and safety grounds.  It was classed as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Ms Ladele, a registrar and a Christian, believed that same-sex partnerships are "contrary to God's law".  Because of her beliefs, she refused to carry out the registration of civil partnerships when the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force.  She was dismissed for gross misconduct on the basis of being discriminatory towards the gay community and for breaching the Council's "Dignity for All" policy, which had fundamental human rights, equality and diversity implications.  Bringing claims for religious discrimination, she initially succeeded before a tribunal, only to subsequently fail in front of both the EAT and the Court of Appeal.  Ms Ladele's claim failed on the basis that as a public authority employer, it was committed to promoting equal opportunities, including the rights of the gay community. 

Mr McFarlane was a sex counsellor dismissed for refusing to counsel same-sex couples.  He brought claims based on indirect discrimination, which failed both in the tribunal and the EAT.  It was found that the actions of Mr McFarlane's employer could be objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.  The legitimate aim was to provide a full range of counselling services to all sections of the community, regardless of sexual orientation.

Only Mrs Eweida's claim succeeded in the ECtHR.  This was on the basis that too much weight had been placed on BA's corporate image and Mrs Eweida's cross was discrete, bearing no real negative implications to BA's brand.  Mrs Chaplin's claim failed on the grounds that the health and safety policy on a hospital ward was more important than the expression of religious beliefs, thus the interference was necessary in a democratic society.  In relation to Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane, treatment based on sexual orientation requires particularly serious reasons for justification in order to exceed the "margin of appreciation".  In both instances, the margin was not exceeded.

The judgement emphasises that cases involving the justification of indirect discrimination will remain to be very much dependent on the individual facts of each case.  However, employers are now under an obligation to accommodate reasonable requests regarding uniforms.

Posted on: 30/01/2013

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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