MT Expert: Do religious symbols have a place at work?

For some, the displaying of religious symbols, such as crucifixes, is a very important part of their life, at home and at work. However, this can cause issues in the workplace. Employment lawyer Ann Bevitt has the lowdown.

by Ann Bevitt
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

As British offices have become more culturally diverse, there has been increasing confusion as to whether religious symbols should be allowed in the modern workplace. Are employers who allow their employees to openly tout their devotion to Islam, Buddism, Christianity or the Flying Spaghetti Monster putting themselevs at risk of being sued?

Luckily, we have recently had some very helpful guidance from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which issued its long awaited judgment in the case of Eweida and Others v The United Kingdom.

This case dealt with the joint complaint of four employees that the UK had failed to protect their right to manifest their religion and be protected against discrimination under Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights (Convention).

Two of these employees were complaining that they had been discriminated against because of their wearing of religious symbols at work.

The complainants

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways flight attendant and Coptic Christian, left work in October 2006 after being told her necklace broke BA’s uniform code. BA subsequently altered its uniform policy to allow staff to display faith or charity symbols, and Ms Eweida returned to work in February 2007 but was not paid for the time she was absent. She sued BA for religious discrimination and the ECHR found in her favour, ruling that BA had breached her human rights when it banned her from wearing a crucifix at work.

However, Shirley Chaplin, a Christian nurse, was dismissed by her NHS employer for refusing to remove a cross on a necklace. She too took her case to the ECHR but her complaint was rejected.

So is that a yes or a no to crucifixes at work?

Without wishing to sound too much like a lawyer, it depends. Although these two cases were on the surface very similar, the ECHR found good reasons to distinguish them. In Ms Eweida’s case, although BA had the legitimate aim of projecting a certain corporate image, her cross was discreet and did not detract from her professional appearance. In addition, the ECHR considered it significant that BA subsequently amended the uniform policy to allow the wearing of religious jewellery, which undermined the earlier prohibition.

In Ms Chaplin’s case, however, the NHS’ uniform policy was that, for health and safety reasons, no necklaces were to be worn when handling patients. This policy gave rise to a conflict between Ms Chaplin’s duties and her religious beliefs, and the ECHR found that her right to manifest her religion by wearing a cross was outweighed by the protection of health and safety within a hospital ward setting.

Lessons for employers

These decisions give comfort to employers who wish to impose restrictions on what religious symbols employees can wear at work based on legitimate reasons, such as the protection of health and safety. In other situations, however, employers should be wary of imposing such restrictions. Finally, while the law is not always swayed by public opinion, a happy workplace can be.

A recent YouGov poll found that 70% of people felt nurses should be allowed to wear crucifixes at work, while 81% thought flight attendants should be allowed. All things considered, there appears to be still a place for religious symbols in the workplace.

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