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The European Court of Human Rights has given judgment in four cases brought by practising Christians who argued that UK law had failed to protect their right to manifest their religion at work.

Ms Eweida worked for British Airways as a member of check-in staff, and Ms Chaplin as a geriatric nurse. Both were prohibited by their employers from  wearing crosses that were visible at work. Ms Ladele, a Registrar, and Mr McFarlane, a Relate counsellor complained about their dismissal for refusing to carry out certain duties which they considered would condone homosexuality.

In giving judgment, the Court confirmed that the freedom to manifest one’s religious belief, including in the workplace, is subject to limitations, but only those prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health, or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

In Ms Eweida’s case, the Court took into account her desire to manifest her religious belief and her employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image and said that  the employer’s aim was legitimate. However, the UK courts had accorded it too much weight when they came to decide if the restriction on her was proportionate. This meant that her right to manifest her religion had not been adequately protected. The Court took into account  that there was no evidence that such items as turbans and hijabs, worn by other employees, had any negative impact on British Airways’ brand.  However, in Ms Chaplin’s case, the Court said that the reason for asking her to remove the cross, namely the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward, was inherently more important that the protection of a corporate image and so her right to manifest her religious belief had not been infringed.

In the cases of Ms Ladele and Mr McFarlane, the Court decided that an acceptable balance had been struck between their right to manifest their Christian beliefs and their employers’ policies of non-discrimination against service-users on grounds of sexual orientation.

Case reference: Eweida and others v United Kingdom

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