Yesterday, seven judges sitting as a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights handed down a decision in four widely followed employment discrimination cases brought by Christians in Great Britain who sought accommodation of their religious beliefs. (See prior posting.) Two of the cases involve women employees whose employers prevented them from wearing a cross on a necklace. The other two cases involve claims that religious beliefs opposed to same-sex marriage and homosexual relationships should be accommodated. In Eweida and Others v. United Kingdom, (ECHR 4th Section, Jan. 15, 2013), the court held that there had been a violation of Art. 9 (Freedom of Religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights in only one of the cases. By a vote of 5-2, the court held that the United Kingdom violated Art. 9 by failing to adequately protect British Airways employee Nadia Eweida who wanted an exception to the airline's uniform rules so she could wear a visible cross around her neck. The court awarded her damages of 2000 Euros and costs of 30,000 Euros.
British law bars employment discrimination unless the employer can show that its requirements constitute "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim." As to Ms. Eweida, the Court majority said:
[A] fair balance was not struck. On one side of the scales was Ms Eweida’s desire to manifest her religious belief.... [T]his is a fundamental right: because a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity; but also because of the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others. On the other side of the scales was the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image.... [W]hile this aim was undoubtedly legitimate, the domestic courts accorded it too much weight. Ms Eweida’s cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance. There was no evidence that the wearing of other, previously authorised, items of religious clothing, such as turbans and hijabs, by other employees, had any negative impact on British Airways’ brand or image. Moreover, the fact that the company was able to amend the uniform code to allow for the visible wearing of religious symbolic jewellery demonstrates that the earlier prohibition was not of crucial importance.However in the case of Shirley Chaplain, a geriatric ward nurse at a state hospital, the court held unanimously that the requirement she remove her necklace displaying a cross to prevent injury when handling patients was justified.
The third case involved Lillian Ladele, a local registrar of births, deaths and marriages, who refused on religious grounds to conduct civil partnership ceremonies. In a 5-2 decision, the Court rejected Ladele's claims under Art. 9 and the non-discrimination requirements of Art. 14, holding that local authorities are given "a wide margin of appreciation" in balancing religious freedom rights with the mandate not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Two judges dissented, saying that the issue is primarily one of freedom of conscience. They continued:
Instead of practising the tolerance and the “dignity for all” it preached, the Borough of Islington pursued the doctrinaire line, the road of obsessive political correctness. It effectively sought to force the applicant to act against her conscience or face the extreme penalty of dismissal... Ms Ladele did not fail in her duty of discretion: she did not publicly express her beliefs to service users. Her beliefs had no impact on the content of her job, but only on its extent. She never attempted to impose her beliefs on others, nor was she in any way engaged, openly or surreptitiously, in subverting the rights of others. Thus ... the means used were totally disproportionate.The fourth case involved Gary McFarlane, who was a counselor at an organization that provides sex therapy and relationship counselling. He was dismissed after he expressed concern on grounds of his Christian religious beliefs about providing psycho-sexual therapy to same-sex couples. The court unanimously rejected his claim of discrimination and infringement of religious freedom, saying: "the most important factor to be taken into account is that the employer’s action was intended to secure the implementation of its policy of providing a service without discrimination."
The Chamber judgment can be appealed to the Court's 17-judge Grand Chamber. The Guardian reports on the decision, as does a press release from Alliance Defending Freedom.