ECHR Rules in Four Religious Discrimination Cases

LONDON, 15 JANUARY 2013 - Judges have ruled in four landmark religious discrimination cases today.  Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee, won her case but three other claimants lost.

It was decided that Nadia Ewida's human rights had been violated under Article 9 of the European convention on Human Rights for not allowing her to display her cross at work. The other cases involved Shirley Chaplin, a nurse whose employer (Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation NHS Trust) also stopped her wearing a necklace with a cross; Gary McFarlane, a marriage counsellor who was fired for objecting to giving sex therapy advice to gay couples; and Lillian Ladele, a registrar who was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.

Jo Broadbent, Of Counsel at Hogan Lovells, commented: "Today the ECHR has emphasised the need to balance the interests of those with competing rights when deciding whether someone's right to manifest their religious beliefs has been infringed.

"The message for employers is that they will need relatively weighty reasons for interfering with an employee's desire to manifest his or her religious beliefs. What will amount to a sufficiently weighty reason will be fact specific and vary from case to case – genuine health and safety concerns will have more weight than a uniform policy imposed to support a corporate brand. Employers also appear to have more latitude where they act to protect the rights and freedoms of others than where an employee's manifestation of their religious beliefs does not in fact impact on other people.

"Ms Eweida won her case because the court found that the importance of her human rights outweighed British Airways' interest in maintaining its corporate brand and image. Although British Airways had a legitimate aim in that regard, its subsequent decision to allow staff to wear religious jewellery meant that the earlier ban was not necessary. This was particularly the case given that Ms Eweida's manifestation of her beliefs did not encroach upon the interests of other people.

"In contrast, Ms Chaplin lost her  case because the health and safety reasons that lay behind the employer's ban on necklaces were "of a greater magnitude" than an employer's interest in maintaining its corporate image. Issues of clinical safety were for the employer to decide, not the court.

"In the Ladele and McFarlane decisions, the desire of the individuals to manifest their orthodox religious beliefs by not officiating in civil partnerships or providing counselling to same sex couples had an impact on the rights of other people. The ECHR observed that there is a wide margin of discretion when deciding what limits to place upon someone's right to manifest their beliefs in order to protect the rights and freedoms of others. In both cases the employers were trying to secure the rights and freedoms of others by operating equal opportunities policies. Neither the employers nor the domestic courts had gone further than necessary when striking the balance between competing human rights and the claims failed."

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