In recent months there has been a media storm surrounding two cases in which the "plight" of Christian workers has been aired. Both cases relate to wearing a crucifix at work and have been controversial. Notably, however, in both instances the Tribunal and Courts have found that there has been no discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.
The first case was brought by Nadia Eweida against her employers, British Airways (Eweida v British Airways Plc 2010 EWCA Civ80). At the relevant time, BA had a staff dress code which forbade the wearing of visible neck adornments. This meant that Ms Eweida, a Christian, could not wear a small, visible cross with her work uniform. She was suspended from work in 2006 after she refused to stop wearing her crucifix. She claimed that this amounted to discrimination on the grounds of her religion and made much of the fact that BA allowed Sikh employees to wear traditional iron bangles and Muslim employees to wear head scarves.
The Court of Appeal held that her decision to wear a cross was a personal choice and not a religious requirement and therefore that BA's refusal (or rather, their request for her not to wear a cross until they had time to consider her wish to wear it) did not amount to discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. In any event, due to public pressure, BA changed its dress policy and Ms Eweida has since returned to work.
Some commentators have cited this decision as giving employers comfort that they can impose dress codes banning religious symbols which are not required (our emphasis) by an employee's religion, citing as an example the full veil. However, dress codes must be approached with caution. Taking the example of Muslims and the full veil, an employee may well be able to show that it is not merely a personal choice and that there is a body of belief which views it as necessary.
In a more recent, widely reported but as yet unpublished case, Shirley Chaplain, a nurse, brought an Employment Tribunal claim against the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital. The Hospital asked her not to wear a crucifix on a chain round her neck as they were concerned on health and safety grounds that a patient may pull on the chain. They attempted to compromise with her, suggesting that she could pin the crucifix to her uniform or wear it on her identity lanyard. She is quoted in the Telegraph newspaper as saying that taking off her necklace would "violate" her faith. Unsurprisingly, given the Court of Appeal's decision in Eweida, the Tribunal held that wearing the crucifix is not a requirement of the Christian faith and that she had therefore not suffered discrimination on the grounds of her religion. The Judge also noted that the hospital had treated staff from other religious groups equally, by ordering Sikhs to remove wrist bangles and Muslim doctors to switch to tighter-fitting hijabs. She is apparently planning to appeal the decision although it is unclear on what grounds.
There is a current trend of cases in relation to discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief and it is clear that more cases will follow. Public interest in these matters is at an all time high- the issues were even highlighted in the Archbishop of Canterbury's' Easter address.