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British Airways worker wins landmark religious discrimination case

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Nadia Eweida suffered discrimination at work over her Christian beliefs.

Nadia Eweida holds the cross that was at the centre of her case.
Nadia Eweida holds the cross that was at the centre of her case.
Image: Alastair Grant/AP/Press Association Images

A BRITISH AIRWAYS employee suffered discrimination at work over the wearing of a cross, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in a landmark case.

Nadia Eweida, a 60-year-old Coptic Christian, took the airline BA to the European court after courts in Britain upheld the airline’s decision to ban her from wearing a crucifix.

The Strasbourg-based judges ruled that the British courts had given “too much weight” to BA’s desire to “project a certain corporate image” and her right to manifest her religious beliefs had been violated.

But in three other cases the ECHR ruled against three other people from Britain who had filed cases claiming their religious rights had been violated.

Eweida had worked since 1999 as a flight attendant for BA, whose uniform code stipulated that women must wear a high-necked shirt and a cravat, without any visible jewellery.

When the wearing of the cross provoked a dispute in 2006, she was offered an alternative job within the company, which she refused.

She eventually returned to work in February 2007 when BA’s policy was changed to permit the display of religious symbols, with the cross and the star of David permitted.

Eweida said: “I’m very happy and very pleased that Christian rights have been vindicated in the UK and Europe. I’m very pleased that after all this time the European court has specifically recognised… that I have suffered anxiety, frustration and distress.”

‘Bright line’

Shirley Chaplin, a 57-year-old geriatrics nurse, whose employer also stopped her wearing necklaces with a cross on health and safety grounds, lost her case after the court ruled that the reason for asking her to remove it “was inherently of much greater importance”.

The other unsuccessful claimants were Gary McFarlane, 51, a marriage counsellor who was sacked after saying he might object to giving sex therapy advice to gay couples, and Lillian Ladele, a registrar disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties reacted to the verdicts today by saying that a “bright line” had been drawn between the protected right to freedom of religious expression and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of conscience.

ICCL director Mark Kelly said today: “This is a very important case, in which the Strasbourg Court has gone out of its way to mark the limits of protection of freedom of religion under the Convention.

“The Court has quite correctly upheld the fundamental right of all people to express and manifest their faith in the public sphere. This right can only be restricted where there is a reasonable justification, and only by proportionate means.”

Kelly added that the rulings in the cases of McFarlane and Ladele showed that “individual conscience or religious belief, however sincerely held, does not provide a free pass from the requirements of anti-discrimination law”.

- with reporting from AFP

Read: Ireland elected to UN Human Rights Council for first time

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Hugh O'Connell

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