Last month judgment was handed down in the highly publicised case of Eweida and others v United Kingdom [2013] ECHR 37 in which the European Court of Human Rights considered whether UK employment law provided four claimants with sufficient protection against discrimination due to their wish to manifest their religious beliefs in the workplace.

Four Christian employees brought complaints of discrimination against their employers. In brief, the claimants were as follows:

  1. Ms Eweida worked as a check-in desk assistant and was prevented by British Airways from wearing a cross under its uniform policy.
  2. Mrs Chaplin was a nurse and was prevented from wearing a crucifix in hospital wards due to health and safety concerns.
  3. Ms Ladele was a registrar and was dismissed for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.
  4. Mr McFarlane was a relationship counsellor and was dismissed by his employer for refusing to counsel same sex couples.

All of the discrimination claims were dismissed by the UK courts and so the claimants escalated their claims to the European Court of Human Rights. They claimed that the sanctions they suffered at work, the decisions of the UK courts and/or the UK legislation itself breached their human rights under Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to freedom of thought and religion and the right to enjoy basic human rights without discrimination). 

Only Ms Eweida was successful in her claim. Ms Eweida's wish to wear a cross was clearly motivated by a desire to manifest her Christian faith but British Airways had not struck a fair balance between her human right to express her religion and its wish to protect a corporate image through its uniform policy.  Ms Eweida's cross was discrete, did not detract from her professional appearance and there was no evidence that it had a negative impact on the company's image. However, the remaining three claims were unsuccessful. The court appeared to strike a balance between the rights of the claimants to express their religion and the rights of those people who might be affected by it (i.e. the patients or same sex couples) and held that the relevant UK legislation and/or decisions were compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. 

Employers should consider carefully any request by an employee to express their religious beliefs in a particular way.  Unless the particular act has a detrimental impact on others, it is likely that the request should be accommodated.