Although employment law says that you are not allowed to discriminate against an employee because of their religion, the European Court of Human Rights has this week heard four cases from British employees with the first two centring on wearing crucifixes at work and the other two on refusing to carry out civil partnerships and counselling for same-sex couples.
With no employment law in the UK specifically stating that religious symbols cannot be worn in the UK, solicitors have taken the cases of Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin to the ECHR.
Nadia Eweida used to work for British Airways but was sent home by BA for refusing to take off or hide a visible crucifix around her neck as it was breach of the company’s dress code. She is claiming religious discrimination and harassment but has so far been unsuccessful at the employment tribunal, employment appeal tribunal and Court of Appeal.
You can find information about your rights at work at the DirectGov website. And this page tells you all about religious discrimination. It says that it is ‘against the law for an employer to discriminate against you because of your religion or belief. You are also protected against harassment or victimisation at work’. Eweida has followed the correct procedure by first taking her case to the Employment Tribunal, it is likely that her solicitors have firstly attempted mediation with BA to resolve the issue. The process surrounding Employment Tribunals have changed somewhat recently and ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has much more to do with the process, attempting to identify cases which can be solved via mediation rather than an expensive Employment Tribunal case.
The issue Eweida is fighting is the law which says ‘if you wear clothing or jewellery for religious reasons, your employer should make sure any dress code does not discriminate against you’. Although this aspect of employment law may make you immediately think that Eweida is in the right, it also has to be remembered that although some Christians wear a crucifix or a cross as a symbol of their faith, wearing a cross is not a religious law unlike the Islamic hijab.
Earlier this year in July 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron was asked in Prime Minister’s Questions about the Eweida case. MP David Davis, who asked the question, said that the actions of BA were a “disgraceful piece of political correctness” and asked of the PM, “What are we going to do about this sad case?” Cameron’s response fully supported the ex-employee of British Airways saying “I fully support the right of people to wear religious symbols at work; I think it is absolutely a vital religious freedom”. And his comments didn’t stop their adding, “we will change the law and make it clear that people can wear religious emblems at work”.
There have been many solicitors who have bitten back after Cameron’s comments, reminding interested parties that BA’s reaction to Miss Eweida’s necklace had no correlation with the fact that it was a religious symbol but that it breached the company’s dress code, if the necklace was non-religious it would have been treated in the same way. Miss Eweida herself has already admitted that wearing the necklace is a personal choice and not a religious requirement.
With the verdict from the European Court of Human Rights imminent we will see whether they rule that BA interfered with Miss Eweida’s freedom to manifest her religious beliefs, and we will also wait to see whether Mr Cameron holds his promise.