The key issue for the European Court of Human Rights in Eweida and Others v UK was whether a fair balance had been struck between an individual’s fundamental right to freedom of religion on the one hand, and an employer’s interests on the other.
Ms Eweida was suspended by BA for wearing a cross over her uniform, and brought a complaint of indirect discrimination on the grounds of her religious belief. She won her case because the court considered that a fair balance had not been struck between her right to freely manifest her religion and BA’s right to project a professional corporate image. BA had already made exceptions to its uniform policy for other clothing which manifested religious beliefs, such as turbans and hijabs, and there was no evidence that this had had a negative impact on the company’s policy. Nor did the visible wearing of a cross encroach on the rights of others. In this case, the UK courts had given the employer’s interests too much weight, and the policy could not be justified. By contrast, Ms Chaplin’s request to wear a cross whilst working on a hospital ward had been justifiably refused on health and safety grounds.
Two other applicants lost their claims for similar reasons. Ms Ladele, a registrar, had refused to perform same-sex civil partnership ceremonies, and Mr McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, had refused to provide counselling to samesex couples. Their rights to manifest their beliefs about homosexuality were outweighed by their employers’ aims of ensuring equal opportunities for all.
These cases illustrate the difficulties of deciding where the balance lies between the competing interests of employers and employees in discrimination cases. With these examples in mind, employers should check that uniform and dress codes do not unjustifiably prevent employees manifesting their individual religious beliefs.