Ruling on religious discrimination brings call for clear workplace policies

religion 300x225 Ruling on religious discrimination brings call for clear workplace policies

Nadia Eweida who recently won her religious discrimination case against British Airways (Getty Images)

Recent news that Nadia Eweida won her religious discrimination case against British Airways has highlighted an important area of concern for employers. In particular, they need to have clear workplace policies in place that are applied consistently.

The European Court of Human Rights took the view that because Nadia was refused the right to wear a crucifix while working as a check-in clerk, her right to protection from discrimination on the grounds of her religious belief had been compromised. Three further cases relating to claims of religious discrimination that were heard by the same Court were unsuccessful.

Reaction to the ruling has not been short on rhetoric – with the victory chant of the human rights lobby and Nadia herself claiming that ‘Christian rights have been vindicated’.

For employers and all those responsible for managing diversity in the workplace, the impact of the ruling is likely to be more muted. Nadia’s case could be regarded as a special one, which while interesting because of its departure from UK case law, will be unlikely to have much of an impact on current management practices.

Since the discrimination claim first came to light, it has been reported that British Airways changed its policy in 2007 to permit employees to wear a crucifix or other religious jewellery if they wish. In doing so, they have clarified company policy in relation to the wearing of religious clothing and jewellery and employees can now be certain about what is and isn’t allowed. When it comes to uniform policies, there is a lesson here for employers about the need for clarity and it is vital that any restrictions imposed are made on reasonable and objective grounds, for example, health and safety.

When drafting a uniform policy, employers should consider whether the wearing of jewellery, or indeed other items of clothing, interferes with an individual’s ability to do their job. If it does, then it may still be appropriate to prevent such items from being worn, no matter whether they are regarded by the employee as a sign of their religious belief or not. Advice for employers in this area will be unaffected by this ruling.

When it comes to other alleged areas of religious discrimination, employers will be reassured that the ruling has reconfirmed their right to require workers to carry out their jobs, regardless of any religious beliefs. In the Court’s view, the discrimination claims brought by a worker at Relate who refused to counsel same sex couples and the registrar who didn’t want to perform same sex ceremonies, were not valid. Religious beliefs alone are not a good enough reason to justify a worker’s unwillingness to do their job and any lack of tolerance shown by workers on the grounds of sexual orientation could also be viewed as a source of conflict in the workplace – something that most employers would want to halt immediately.

While employers must continue to take a worker’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion seriously, this shouldn’t impact on their ability or willingness to do their job. It may sound harsh but employees that don’t want to do certain aspects of their job on the grounds of their religious belief should consider looking for a more appropriate role.

Paula Whelan is an employment law partner at Shakespeares

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