A Christian nurse is challenging a London NHS Trust for anti-Christian discrimination after she was repeatedly bullied and pressurised to remove or cover up her cross necklace while on duty.
After what nurse Mary Onuoha describes as a two-year campaign waged against her by superiors and NHS bosses, she was forced out of the job she loved after working as an NHS theatre practitioner for 18 years. Patient safety was risked in an operating theatre to discipline Mary over wearing the cross, and her head of department even said that he would have to call security if she wore it in a clinical area.
Mary was told her small gold cross, clasped to her neck, which she had worn for 40 years as a symbol of her deep Christian faith, was a health and safety risk and “must not be visible.” This is despite other clinical staff members at Croydon University Hospital in South London being permitted to wear jewellery, saris, turbans, hijabs and so on. Only the cross was subject to specific sanction.
For her continued refusals, the devout Christian was investigated, suspended from clinical duties and demoted to working as a receptionist.
Despite the NHS stating that it was in danger of being ‘overwhelmed’ due to Covid-19, Mary was forced off work with stress in June 2020 and believed she faced no alternative but to resign.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Mary will now challenge Croydon Health Services NHS Trust on the grounds of harassment, victimisation, direct and indirect discrimination, and constructive unfair dismissal. Mary’s lawyers will also argue that the Trust has breached her freedom to manifest her faith under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Equality Act.
The hearing is being held at Croydon Employment Tribunal with Mary’s evidence commencing on Tuesday 5 October. She will state that she was ‘treated like a criminal’ by her employer and her case will bring into question the freedom of Christians to manifest their faith in the workplace, especially in comparison to members of other faiths.
Determined to become a nurse
Growing up in Nigeria, Mary was determined to become a nurse after one of her brothers tragically died from measles due to a lack of medical provision. Mary arrived in the UK in 1988, fulfilling her ambition by working at Croydon University Hospital for 19 years. Each day she wore the cross around her neck without any complaints or health and safety concerns from colleagues or patients.
From 2015, however, a succession of line managers asked Mary to either remove her cross, conceal it, or face ‘escalation.’ Each time she politely declined the requests, explaining that her necklace is a symbol of her deeply held Christian faith and that she had worn it at work for many years.
Saris and turbans allowed
The issue escalated in August 2018 when bosses at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust ordered her to remove the cross saying it was a breach of the Trust’s Dress Code and Uniform Policy and therefore a health risk to her and to patients.
Mary will argue that it is in fact NHS management who were breaching the dress code, which states:
“The Trust welcomes the variety of appearances brought by individual styles, choices and religious requirements regarding dress; this will be treated sensitively and will be agreed on an individual basis with the Manager and Trust and must conform to health, safety and security regulations, infection prevention and control and moving and handling guidelines. The wearing of saris, turbans, kirpan, skullcaps, hijabs, kippahs and clerical collars arising from particular cultural / religious norms are seen as part of welcoming diversity.”
Mary’s lawyers will argue that the dress code was applied inconsistently, with other nurses and members of staff frequently wearing various types of jewellery, hijabs, saris, turbans and religious bracelets in wards and theatre without being asked to remove them.
However, in contradiction to this policy, Mary was required at all times to wear several lanyards, (which have no anti-strangle clasps) whilst at the same time the Trust claimed that wearing items from the neck, such as her chain with a cross, posed a “risk of injury or infection.”
Out of sight
During attempts to compromise, however, NHS management exposed that the real reason for their demands was not safety and hygiene, but the visibility of the cross. In a letter to Mary on 9 August 2018, her line manager and Clinical Lead Practitioner, wrote:
“I offered you a compromise of using a longer chain so your necklace was out of sight but you refused. Please note that the necklace is not only a breach of dress code policy but also a health and safety risk to patients and yourself.
“Whilst I understand that you wear the necklace due to religious belief…I am prepared to offer you a compromise in that you can wear a high-necked t-shirt so that the necklace is out of sight (below the v of your scrubs) and out of reach of potential angry or agitated patients. I am also writing to offer you another compromise in that you can wear a high-necked t-shirt/vest top under your scrub top to cover the necklace.
“I do hope you will see that I have tried to support your religious beliefs by allowing you to wear your necklace, but it cannot be visible when you are on clinical duties. This is both to adhere to Infection Control guidelines and to protect you from possible injury if confronted by angry patients or carers.”
The following week, Mary’s line manager was visibly angry when she saw that she was still wearing the cross and said she would ensure that she would face disciplinary action.
Patient safety risked
On 21 August 2018, Mary was in charge of a team working in theatre supporting a patient who was under general anaesthetic. While the patient was on the surgery table, her manager came into theatre and demanded that she remove or conceal her cross immediately.
After refusing to remove it, Mary was told to leave the theatre to conceal the cross by putting on an additional scrub back to front, on top of the one she was correctly wearing. Mary said she could not leave the patient. Her manager said that the junior staff could remain with the patient whilst she removed or covered up her cross.
Mary, however, again refused to leave the patient. Management then returned with another senior staff member insisting she left to change. Mary was asked what she wanted to do and then, in the end, was told to carry on but that the cross needed to be removed by a specified time later that day.
At the same time, during the same operation, the blue pendant and earrings being worn by the anaesthetist were completely ignored.
There were similar incidents in theatre and the wards where Mary was concerned about patients’ safety.
‘Treated like a criminal’
In November 2018, Mary received a letter from the Associate Director of Nursing, Stephen Lord, telling her that she was now being demoted to reception duties for her continued refusal to comply and that an internal investigation would ensue.
Mr Lord gave Mary a letter which accused her of:
“continued failure to comply with the Dress Code and Uniform Policy” and stated that she would now be “temporarily redeploy[ed] to non-clinical duties where you would be able to wear your necklace without breaching the Trust policy.”
Until her resignation in August 2020, Mary was constantly moved from one administrative role to the next, which she found deeply humiliating. She was also put under pressure and ordered not to tell anyone about what was happening to her. As she was unable to explain to any colleagues why this was happening, it took a lasting emotional toll on her.
By April 2019, Mary had been given a final written warning and had been told by Mr Lord, following her grievance being dismissed, that if she returned to clinical areas with the cross on “security would become involved, and I don’t want that.”
As she continued to face investigation and demotion, Mary was forced to take stress leave in June 2020. Despite being off sick, the Trust demanded that she attend investigation hearings after it had produced an extensive ‘investigation report.’
Shattered, Mary instructed her Christian Legal Centre lawyers, who had supported her throughout this time, to tender her resignation.
‘Attack on my faith’
Mary said: “This has always been an attack on my faith. My cross has been with me for 40 years. It is part of me, and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm. Patients often say to me: ‘I really like your cross’, they always respond to it in a positive way and that gives me joy and makes me feel happy. I am proud to wear it as I know God loves me so much and went through this pain for me.
“At this hospital there are members of staff who go to a mosque four times a day and no one says anything to them. Hindus wear red bracelets on their wrists and female Muslims wear hijabs in theatre. Yet my small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job.
“I was astonished that senior staff were prepared to potentially endanger a patient’s life in order to intimidate me to remove it.
“From a young age I naturally always wanted to care for people – it was in my blood. All I have ever wanted is to be a nurse and to be true to my faith. I am a strong woman, but I have been treated like a criminal. I love my job, but I am not prepared to compromise my faith for it, and neither should other Christian NHS staff in this country.”
The visibility of the cross
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting Mary, said: “From the beginning this case has been about one or two members of staff being offended by the cross – the worldwide, recognised and cherished symbol of the Christian faith.
“It is upsetting that an experienced nurse, during a pandemic, has been forced to choose between her faith and the profession she loves.
“Why do some NHS employers feel that the cross is less worthy of protection or display than other religious attire?
“How Mary was treated over a sustained period was appalling and cannot go unchallenged.
“Mary’s whole life has been dedicated to caring for others and her love for Jesus. We are determined to fight for justice.”
Find out more about Mary Onuoha