Getting Cross About A Cross: Euro Court Rules In Landmark BA Case?

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that the UK failed to adequately protect the rights of an employee who wished to display her faith by openly wearing a cross. Businesses need to take note if they opera a uniform policy or manage issues relating to religion and its expression.

The main issue revolves around where to draw the line in a uniform policy.

Ms Eweida worked for British Airways as a member of check-In staff. She wanted to wear the cross as part of her desire to bear witness to her Christian faith. BA’s uniform policy prohibited the wearing of any visible sign of adornment. However, BA’s policy made an exception if the item in question was a ‘mandatory’ religious item (such as a Sikh turban) and could not be concealed.

Ms Eweida chose to wear her cross visibly regardless of this regulation despite being warned by BA not to do so. When trying to reach a compromise, BA offered an alternative role in which Ms Eweida would not be required to wear a uniform and therefore would be able to display her cross. Ms Eweida rejected this offer and claimed to have been indirectly discriminated against on the grounds of her religion and belief.

Prior to the ECHR ruling the UK courts had rejected Ms Eweida’s claim on the basis that:

  • No one was denying her the right to wear a cross under her uniform – it was just a question of her displaying that cross.
  • No article of the Christian faith required her to display that cross.
  • BA were entitled to project a certain corporate image, which involved applying a uniform policy and that was a legitimate goal.
  • Ms Eweida had not established that Christians as a group were disproportionately affected by the uniform policy: a requirement of the law relating to indirect discrimination.

The ECHR disagreed with the UK courts and upheld Ms Eweida’s claim. It decided that:

  • A fair balance wasn’t being struck. Whilst BA’s desire to project a certain corporate image was legitimate, BA’s’s refusal to allow Mr Eweida to wear a cross visibly unreasonably interfered with her right to manifest her religion.
  • Her cross was discrete and would not have detracted from her professional appearance.
  • There was no evidence that employees’ wearing of authorised items of religious clothing had a negative impact on BA’s brand.
  • The fact that BA changed its policy to later allow for the wearing of symbolic religious jewellery demonstrated that BA’s objections weren’t in fact as important as initially thought.

This case has highlighted the way that the UK has incorporated its European obligations with regard to this issue an amendment to the law may be required.

When applying any formal or informal uniform policy, you should be aware that you could face a claim if you were to refuse to allow an employee to wear symbolic religious jewellery, provided that this doesn’t detract from the employee’s professional appearance.

Any review of that policy should be part of a wider strategy to protect against discrimination claims by:

  1. having a proper equal opportunities policy in place; and by
  2. providing training on equal opportunities issues.

For more advice on employee rights or if you are considering rewriting your employee handbook contact the Bishop & Sewell Employee department.

Category: News | Author: |