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Eweida Ruling Implications for Diversity Policy

The decision made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the case of Ms Nadia Eweida could have serious implications for employers and policy makers when they are creating policies about what is deemed to be acceptable dress code in the workplace. After examining the case in more detail, it's possible to draw some conclusions about the impact the case will have for employers going forward.

Ms Eweida initially wore her white-gold cross around her neck to work and concealed it under her clothes. In May 2006 she began to wear the cross openly, signalling her commitment to her faith. Her manager asked her to remove it or to at least hide it, and she refused, although she did eventually agree to hide it after talking to a senior manager. Sixty-year-old Mrs Eweida was sent home from work in 2006 for again refusing to take off the cross. In October of that year, British Airways offered her administrative work instead of her current role, which did not necessitate wearing a uniform, but she turned this offer down. In November 2006, BA announced a review of their policy regarding employees wearing visible religious symbols. The display of religious and charity symbols were now to be permitted when they had been authorised. The cross and star of David were immediately authorised. Ms Eweida returned to work after these amendments to the uniform policy came into force. The judges in the European Court of Human Rights case said that the amendment BA had been able to make to their dress code showed that it was not crucial. The ECHR found that Nadia Eweida's human rights had been breached, in particular her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Ms Eweida, from south-west London, said she felt "vindicated" when the court decided she had been caused "considerably anxiety, frustration and distress". The government were ordered to pay her £26,600 in costs and damages.

What ongoing impact will this high profile case have for workplaces? There are not likely to be any far reaching changes, apart from the increased need for employers to make sure that they can justify a dress code that might discriminate against people's religious beliefs. It might be that a dress code specifying a ban on items like a turban or a hijab or other garment worn for religious purposes would be frowned upon.

Employer's who put bans on wearing items that may cause a risk to health and safety are more likely to be able to justify their bans - and a case like this one was heard alongside Eweida's at the European Court of Human Rights. Shirley Chaplin is a nurse who also took her claim to court as she felt she had been subject to discrimination when she too was not allowed to wear a cross when working. She lost her case, as the dress code of her employer specified that jewellery must not be worn for reasons of hygiene. The hospital argued that her chain and cross could cause an injury if an elderly patient pulled on it, and it could create a risk to health and safety if it swung free and came into contact with open wounds.

Two other cases were also lost - those of the relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane, who worked for Relate and said that he would find it hard to offer therapy to same-sex couples, and Lillian Ladele, a registrar who lost her position at Islington Council when she refused to conduct ceremonies for same-sex civil partnerships.

These cases have led to descriptions about "defining religious freedom in Britain and across Europe". Legal experts argue that cases such as Eweida's and Chaplin's are good examples for employers who want to justify a uniform policy which could be seen to discriminate against certain religious groups. The cases have shown a difficulty in banning certain religious items if they do not fit a corporate image, whereas items that genuinely could lead to health and safety risks could more easily be outlawed.

Employers should make sure that they construct their policies about dress code with care when it comes to the wearing of any religious clothes or symbols. Reasonable requests made by employees should not be dismissed without serious consideration, and all policies should be made with this issue in mind. A balance must be struck between the individual human rights of the employees and the concerns of the employer.

Employers can take comfort from the results of the European Court of Human Rights cases. The ECHR has supported the UK courts in their approach to laws regarding religious discrimination, while enforcing that employers should attempt to find a middle ground between the interests of specific religious beliefs and workplace requirements. This leaves employers with no doubt that they are entitled to exercise legitimate discretion in appropriate circumstances.

The cases involving Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele show that not every request can be allowed when it impacts on another person's human rights, for example, the right not to be a victim of discrimination on the grounds of your sexual orientation. In these cases, the court was clearly in favour of the protection of the rights of others rather than an individual's right to freedom regarding their religious beliefs. Employers can be assured that they do not need to compromise their equal opportunities policies just to allow certain people to avoid performing roles that are at odds with their religious views.

Nadia Eweida was the only one of the four Christians to win her case, and even that can be construed as being narrowly won. There was no impact on the ability of employers to continue to impose dress codes on their staff. Ms Eweida won her case as British Airways failed to have a consistent policy, and because her choice to wear her cross did not stop them portraying their corporate image.

The verdicts on these four cases demonstrate that the European Court of Human Rights will uphold the duty of UK employers to strike a balance between the rights of any individuals to practise their religion, and their rights to not suffer from discrimination.


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