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The right to manifest your religious belief

Posted on 29th January 2013
Case law

The European Court of Human Rights held that the UK failed to protect an employee's right to manifest her religious belief. Ms Eweida worked for British Airways (BA) and was prevented from wearing a cross as this was in breach of BA's uniform policy. Ms Eweida failed in her attempt to bring a discrimination claim under UK law. However, the European Court of Human Rights has found that BA's uniform policy interfered with Ms Eweida's right to manifest her religion and it was not justified as being necessary.

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The wearing of a cross would not have detracted from Ms Eweida's professional appearance and would not have encroached on the interests of others

Eweida and others v United Kingdom 2013

The facts

Ms Eweida worked for BA as a member of the check-in staff. Under BA's uniform policy employees were not permitted to wear religious icons or jewellery. Ms Eweida wished to wear a plain silver cross which would be visible over her uniform as a personal expression of her Christian faith. 

Ms Eweida brought a claim of religious discrimination in the employment tribunal but she was unsuccessful on the basis that she could not show that other Christians had been disadvantaged by the uniform policy. A degree of "group disadvantage" is necessary for indirect discrimination claims. The case eventually went to the Court of Appeal where it concluded the policy was justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (i.e. to maintain BA's corporate image) and was therefore objectively justified.

Article 9 of the European convention on Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This includes the freedom to manifest his or her religion or belief. It goes on to say that the freedom to manifest one's religion or belief should be subject only to limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society and in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, household morals or for the protection of the rights of freedom of others. 

Ms Eweida and three others made a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights that the UK had not complied with its duty to protect their right to manifest their religion or belief.

The decision

It was not in dispute that Ms Eweida's wish to wear a cross was a manifestation of her religious belief. It was also not disputed that BA's uniform policy interfered Ms Eweida's right to manifest her religious belief. What was in dispute was whether or not it was justified as being necessary.

The ECHR concluded that while BA's wish to project a certain corporate image was legitimate the UK courts had put too much weight on this. The wearing of a cross would not have detracted from Ms Eweida's professional appearance and would not have encroached on the interests of others. The fact that BA amended its uniform policy to allow for the wearing of symbolic religious jewellery demonstrated that the initial prohibition was not crucial.

The ECHR concluded that the restriction was not necessary. Therefore, in failing to provide Ms Eweida with a remedy the UK had failed to protect her right to manifest her religion in breach of its duty and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The other three cases

The other three cases failed because in each case the restriction was necessary in the interests of either public safety, protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. 

In practice

In practice employers may wish to project a corporate image and this may be justified. However, where this interferes with an employee's right to manifest their religion or belief it is unlikely to be justified unless it can be shown that there are genuine health and safety reasons or it is done to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

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