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Religious awareness could be important for in-house legal jobs

Posted by: Laurence Simons 16/01/13

In a typically-uncontroversial legal discussion over religious discrimination, a British Airways worker has been awarded £1,600 in damages by the European court of human rights (ECHR), which over-ruled a UK decision to uphold a BA case preventing her from wearing her cross at work.

Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian, was sent home from work for displaying a small silver crucifix while performing her role as an airline check-in attendant.

In its majority judgement, the ECHR declared that there had been two principals at stake in the decision - Ms Eweida's desire to display her devout beliefs and the airline's wish to portray a certain corporate image.

While this is a legitimate argument, the domestic court that initially dealt with the case awarded it too much weight, according to the ruling.

The equalities minister, Maria Miller, said: "We are delighted the principle that one can wear religious symbols at work has been upheld. People shouldn't suffer discrimination because of their religious beliefs."

This may leave the Lawyers' Secular Society (LSS) tutting gently or shaking their heads in urbane disappointment, but they will be pleased to learn of the other three judgements made by the ECHR in a four-for-the-price-of-one religious controversy-generator.

Three other Christian applicants - Lilian Ladele, a local authority registrar who lives in London, Shirley Chaplin, a nurse from Exeter, and Gary McFarlane, a Bristol marriage counsellor - who felt they too had suffered religious discrimination had their cases dismissed.

Ms Chaplin was switched to a desk job because of health and safety concerns surrounding her cross, with legal experts presumably concerned it could accidentally poke a patient in the eye.

Mr McFarlane and Ms Ladele objected to elements of their job which they felt clashed with their beliefs, but the ECHR argued that the disciplinary procedures brought against them were justified.

According to the Guardian, the former was dismissed for suggesting he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith, while the latter was fired for her unwillingness to offer civil ceremonies to gay people.

While it might be hoped that the area of separation between religious faith and the state might have been dealt with around the time of Henry VIII, it appears to be an issue that will rumble on and on.

Re-launching the LSS, Charlie Klendijan said: "Our stance is that behaviour which would otherwise be wrong cannot be justified in the name of religion. Our clear line is that freedom of religion is incredibly important, but that doesn't mean the freedom to discriminate."