The Strasbourg Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has recently decided on two cases relating to the wearing of religious symbols at work.

Crucifix and image

The Court considered that there had been an interference with both women’s right to manifest their religion in that they had been unable to wear their crosses visibly at work.  BUT, it is not as straightforward as that,

Ms Eweida, (an employee of BA) worked for a private company and could not therefore attribute that interference directly to the State, as such, the Court had to examine whether her right freely to manifest her religion had been sufficiently protected within the domestic legal order.

It was clear that BA’s uniform code and the proportionality of the measures it had taken had been examined in detail by the UK courts.  Nonetheless, the Court concluded in her case that a fair balance had not been struck between, on the one side of the scales, her desire to manifest her religious belief and to be able to communicate that belief to others, and on the other side of the scales, her employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image.  The Court said “Ms Eweida’s cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance.” Further, other BA employees had previously been authorised to wear items of religious clothing such as turbans and hijabs without any negative impact on BA’s brand or image.  The Court determined therefore that the UK authorities had therefore failed sufficiently to protect Ms Eweida’s right to manifest her religion, in breach of Article 9.

Crucifix as a safety issue

Ms Chaplin was asked to remove her cross for the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward.  The court decided that this was inherently of much greater importance.  Moreover, hospital managers were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety than a court, particularly an international court which had heard no direct evidence.

The Court therefore concluded that requiring Ms Chaplin to remove her cross had not been disproportionate and that the interference with her freedom to manifest her religion had been necessary in a democratic society. Accordingly, there had been no violation of Article 9.

Laws in question

The European court of human rights looked at  the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (article 9 of the European convention on human rights) or the general prohibition on discrimination (article 14).

Citation: CASE OF EWEIDA AND OTHERS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM, (Applications nos. 48420/10, 59842/10, 51671/10 and 36516/10)