Court: Religious freedom not an ‘absolute right’

Religious freedom is a right but not an absolute one, Europe’s top court said, ruling that British Airways discriminated against a devoutly Christian employee by making her remove her crucifix, but backing a British charity that fired a marriage counsellor who refused to give sex therapy to gay couples.

Court: Religious freedom not an ‘absolute right’

In judgments welcomed by civil liberties groups but condemned by religious advocates, the European Court of Human Rights said freedom of religion is “an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies”.

“However, where an individual’s religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made,” the court said.

The court’s judges, by a five-two margin, backed a claim by BA check-in clerk Nadia Eweida, who sparked a national debate in Britain over religion when she was sent home in November 2006 for refusing to remove a small silver crucifix to comply with rules on religious symbols.

BA eventually changed its policy and Eweida returned to work, but she pursued a claim of religious discrimination, seeking damages and compensation for lost wages.

British courts backed BA, but Eweida went to the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg- based court has ruled the airline’s policy “amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion”. It said while BA had the right to “project a certain corporate image... Ms Eweida’s cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance”.

Eweida, 60, said on hearing the verdict: “I was jumping for joy and saying ‘Thank you, Jesus’.

“It’s a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith.”

BA said it had changed its policy on religious symbols in 2007 and was not a party to Eweida’s legal action, which was pursued against the British government.

Defining the limits of religious expression in the workplace has proved a thorny issue in many countries.

Last year California passed a workplace law barring employers from restricting workers in back-office jobs from wearing religious symbols.

The law follows discrimination cases including one in which a Sikh man won almost $300,000 in damages after he was barred from becoming a prison guard because he refused to shave the beard required by his religion so he could be fitted for a gas mask.

The British government welcomed the judgment in Eweida’s case. Prime minister David Cameron tweeted that he was “delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld”.

But the court ruled against Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was told to remove a crucifix necklace at work. The judges said Chaplin’s employer banned necklaces for health and safety grounds, and so the measure was not excessive.

The British judges also struck down claims by Lillian Ladele, a local authority registrar who said her Christian faith prevented her from overseeing same- sex civil partnerships, and marriage counsellor Gary McFarlane, who refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples.

In both cases, the court said employers had been entitled to strike a balance between claimants’ rights and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said the verdicts were “an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense”.

The court’s rulings are binding on the 47-member states of the Council of Europe. Losing claimants can try to appeal to the court’s Grand Chamber.

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