Equality and diversity make headline news. In particular the press has recently courted controversy over religious and belief discrimination. Here, we look at some of the more high profile cases over the last year and consider how courts, employers and other institutions are approaching this issue. We ask “are they succeeding in protecting equal opportunities or are we facing an unequal equality?”

British Airways: cross-ban

Similar to other airlines, BA’s uniform policy banned wearing jewellery unless worn under the uniform. Heathrow check-in worker, Nadia Eweida, wished to wear her cross on the outside of her uniform, so that she could express her faith. BA said this was against its uniform policy. Ms Eweida brought a grievance on the basis that the policy discriminated against her Christian faith. In particular, Ms Eweida thought it discriminatory as male Sikh staff could wear turbans and female Muslim staff Hijabs (because they could not be worn under the uniform). On the face of it, it does appear BA was not even-handed in its approach and the press and church leaders alike were quick to condemn BA’s policy. However, many businesses have dress codes; firstly to create a uniform-look to the staff presentation and secondly to comply with Health & Safety legislation. The difficulty for BA and other employers is balancing the competing interests of the individual against the wider interests of the company.

There was, as is often the case, a third way. BA said that it would look into allowing the wearing of all religious symbols as small lapel badges. Perhaps a more equal equality after all?

Lydia Playfoot v Millais School

Another uniform policy dilemma. This time a school, rather than employer, had a policy banning the wearing of jewellery. Lydia Playfoot, a 16 year old girl, was told to remove her ring, which symbolises chastity, or face expulsion. Miss Playfoot brought a claim against the school for breach of her human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In particular, Miss Playfoot said that she should be allowed to wear the ring because Sikh and Muslim pupils could wear bangles and headscarves in class.

This was generally viewed by the press as anti-Christian. However, the High Court disagreed and found that the school was entitled to require Miss Playfoot to remove her ring. It found the uniform policy served a number of important functions, including reducing the risk of bullying at school; as social pressures develop around clothes and jewellery through peer expectations. Further, there was no evidence that Miss Playfoot’s religious beliefs in fact required her to wear a chastity ring, and she at no point suggested that it did.

Again, the school needed to balance the competing interests of the individual, Miss Playfoot, with the wider interests of the pupil body as a whole. Further, a fact that was not widely reported by the press was that in fact the school had previously permitted a Christian girl to wear a headscarf. This was because that form of dress was required as part of her faith as a member of the “Plymouth Brethren”. Therefore it was misplaced to accuse the school of anti-Christian bias.

Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council

This high profile case involved the wish of a devout Muslim support teacher to wear her veil in class. The Council refused Mrs Azmi’s request on the basis that the veil obstructed her face and mouth and therefore effective communication with pupils was impeded.

Mrs Azmi brought a claim in the Tribunal of religious discrimination. The Tribunal and EAT dismissed her claim. Again, the interests of the individual needed to be balanced against the good of the pupils. Although the school had applied a practice that put people of Mrs Azmi’s religion or belief at a disadvantage, the adoption of that practice was justified.

Overall, this decision would seem to illustrate that the courts, at least on this occasion, do fulfil their role in protecting equal opportunities. This must include taking into account the opportunity for children of all ethnic and social backgrounds to have access to effective tuition. Foster carers asked to ‘promote’ homosexuality

The above is similar to recent news headlines in a matter involving a couple’s refusal to sign Somerset County Council’s foster contract. Mr and Mrs Matherick, devout Christians, wanted to bring up an 11 year old boy in their care as their own. The Council asked them to enter into its foster contract which the couple said specifically required them to ‘promote’ homosexuality. The couple said that they could not condone that as practising Christians and church ministers and they resigned as foster parents.

The press generally portrayed this as political correctness gone mad, particularly given the shortage of foster parents in the UK. It was the couple who were viewed as being the victims of discrimination because of their religious beliefs. However, it seems to be the press here who are guilty of not balancing the often competing interests of a good story against the facts.

It has now been clarified that it was never the case that the couple were being asked to ‘promote’ homosexuality. Rather they were required ‘not to discriminate unfairly for reasons of sex, marital status, caring responsibilities or sexual orientation’: in line with similar equality promises made by every UK local authority.

The law simply required that, for example, if the couple were asked about it, they would discuss homosexuality as equally as they would discuss heterosexuality. This would seem a sensible balance between the interests of their child, who might otherwise feel unable to communicate about his sexuality with his parents, and the couple’s interests to not have to expressly promote a sexuality which is against their religious beliefs.

On balance

Equal opportunities will continue to grab the headlines and our interest. Courts and organisations will have to grapple with these difficult and emotive issues for some time to come. Overall, it appears that they are not doing such a bad job as the media would at times have us believe. Maybe the new Equality and Human Rights Commission (in place since 1 October 2007) will be able to provide equality with a better press, as well as working towards a system which tolerates all views and where the collision of rights can be resolved without winners and losers?