Call for new law to protect workers wearing crosses

25 January 2013

The UK’s equalities watchdog is calling for a new law to guarantee workers the right to wear religious symbols after last week’s European Court ruling on four UK Christians.

After the European Court of Human Rights backed a complaint from a British Airways employee who lost her job for wearing a cross, David Cameron was among the first to welcome the ruling.

But the court rejected appeals from three other Christians – including nurse Shirley Chaplin, who was forced to take a desk job because she wanted to continue wearing a cross at work.


The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) welcomed the Strasbourg court’s finding that Nadia Eweida’s right to religious freedom was breached by the airline, but said that the overall judgment left “a lot of scope for confusion”.

Reacting to her defeat, Ms Chaplin, 57, disputed that her cross had presented any safety issue. She said staff had been allowed to wear jewellery on the wards but she was told that she could only wear her cross if she kept it hidden.

“To me this is a bit like a wedding band and so to take it off and hide it is like divorcing God,” she said. “I felt that my beliefs were being marginalised.”

Asked about Mr Cameron’s promise last summer to change the law if the European Court did not endorse the right to wear the cross, she said: “He made the statement that he would, so I call upon him to do that.”

The EHRC said: “The Commission’s view is that the Government should now look at the need to change the law to take the European Court judgment into account.

“Until this takes place, there is potential for confusion for both employers and employees following the ruling”.

Scant comfort

Legal experts also commented on the rulings against Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor who expressed a possible conscientious objection to giving sex therapy same-sex couples, and Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar who was reluctant to preside over civil partnership ceremonies.

Paul Lambdin, partner in the employment department at the law firm Stevens & Bolton, said that the ruling would give “scant comfort” to those of faith and those who disagree with same sex marriage or civil partnerships could find themselves excluded from certain jobs.

“These cases demonstrate the difficulty of divorcing a belief from its practice,” he said. “The practical effect is that Ms Ladele, Mr McFarlane and others with similar religious convictions may be lawfully excluded from certain jobs.”

Conscience also crucial

“It’s good that the EHRC recognises the need to change the law to make clear that crosses can be worn by Christians in the workplace,” said Andrea Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre.

“But the European Court also recognised that Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele’s views on marriage were a manifestation of Christian faith. This was a crucial point made by the European judges which stands against what the British courts and Government had argued.

“This issue of conscience needs to be addressed just as urgently otherwise more and more Christians will be at risk of losing their jobs”.

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