Shirley Chaplin, the Exeter nurse at the centre of the ‘Cross Row’ with her NHS employer, has vowed to “fight on” after an Employment Tribunal found against her claim for discrimination on the grounds of her religion. The Tribunal found that there was no discrimination because all staff were treated equally. No one was permitted to wear a cross around their neck for religious reasons but if someone wanted to wear a hijab for religious reasons they could.
The Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust indicated that they would permit exemptions in their uniform policy for religious and cultural symbols that were ‘mandatory’ within the religion. It would seem that, without evidence, the Trust decided that the wearing of the hijab was a mandatory Islamic cultural manifestation despite the fact that its wearing is banned in public by some Islamic states. Meanwhile, the Cross, the single most distinctive manifestation of the Christian faith for 2000 years, pre-eminent across all catholic and protestant denominations and countries, is not given legal protection.
The Tribunal also held that Mrs Chaplin had not been indirectly discriminated against by the application of the uniform policy. In the previous case of Nadia Eweida v British Airways, the Court of Appeal held that the Claimant must prove that more than one person has been affected by the policy. Ms Eweida could not establish a ‘group’ and her case failed. However, in Mrs Chaplin’s case a fellow colleague gave evidence of the desire to wear her Cross. However, the Tribunal has now decided that a group must be more than two people as well—leaving the law in a ludicrous level of uncertainty. The Tribunal also held that the ‘health and safety’ reasons for removing the Cross were justified, despite the complete lack of any evidence to support the Trust’s position.
Mrs Chaplin had been told last year to remove the Cross she had worn around her neck since her confirmation, nearly 40 years ago, and which she had worn every day during her nurse training and career without incident, for ‘health and safety’ reasons.
First, the Trust said the cross and chain could cause her, or others, harm if pulled or caught by a patient. When these reasons were countered by Shirley Chaplin—who was prepared to have a magnetic clasp inserted on her chain so that it could come away easily in any such situation—the Trust then changed its reasons and said the cross and chain might scratch someone. The Trust then suggested that Mrs Chaplin wear a cross on ear studs or “hide” her cross by pinning it inside a pocket of her uniform.
This appears to be another case in which the Courts are reluctant to protect the rights of Christians. Instead of using common sense and proportionate measures to secure peaceful outcomes, as evidenced in their attitudes towards the hijab, there was a continual hardening of the Trust and Tribunal’s position regarding the central importance of the symbol of the cross, recognised as the most important symbol of the Christian’s faith since Christ’s death on a cross 2000 years ago.
Mrs Chaplin said: “I am disappointed, but not at all surprised by the decision of the Tribunal today. It was obvious from the very start that the Trust would use every tactic possible to get itself off the hook. The Trust changed its defence several times and each time we were able to counter it with a sensible argument but this did not prevail. The Trust may have won the legal argument today, but its reputation has been damaged as the moral argument was won before I even entered the Tribunal.
“I have had a huge amount of support from the British public, many of whom view the actions of the Exeter Trust with amazement. It is extraordinary that the Trust can spend what must be tens of thousands of pounds defending their position, when at the same time they are making cut backs which affect patients every day.
“What the Trust doesn’t realise, as it seeks to enforce its uniform policy in the way it has, is that it sends out a very clear message to Christians working in the Trust or considering working for the Trust in the future that they will have to ‘hide’ their faith. The message is clear: Christians whose faith motivates their vocation and care of patients do not appear to be welcome at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust.
“When employers or Government start to censor the conscience and convictions in this way it is a first step towards the demise of democracy.
“I would like to thank my legal team, Paul Diamond and the Christian Legal Centre for courageously taking this case on and would like to state on record that the decision to press ahead with this case was mine and mine alone. I fight on and I fight to win the right for Christians to live out their faith in Britain today – anything less would be a negation of my Christian duty.”
Andrea Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre said: “The decision shows a worrying lack of common sense. No evidence supported the Trust’s ‘health and safety’ position, yet the Tribunal considered removing Mrs Chaplin’s Cross as a proportionate response to a ‘health and safety’ risk that was never established.
“The extent to which the Trust is prepared to stop Mrs Chaplin manifesting her religious beliefs is remarkable. We hope that the Employment Appeal Tribunal will reverse today’s decision and allow Mrs Chaplin to wear her Cross visibly, in the same way that doctors and nurses of other religions can manifest their religious beliefs.”
Find out more about Shirley Chaplin