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European Court delivers landmark judgement on discrimination cases

15 January 2013

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) today delivered a landmark judgement on four cases where it is claimed UK law does not sufficiently protect an employees’ rights to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination at work. The cases can be categorised as uniform cases and refusal cases.

On the uniform cases the Court ruled in favour of a British Airways employee, Ms Eweida. The Court considered that her desire to manifest her Christian belief by visibly wearing a cross at work out weighed her employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image. A similar case brought by an NHS nurse failed because of the health and safety justification her employer relied on.

In the refusal cases the employees worked in jobs that required them to serve the public. Their religious beliefs inhibited them from doing so in relation to certain groups protected by discrimination law and they were dismissed. In each case the employer was pursuing a policy of non-discrimination against service users. Not surprisingly the ECHR upheld the dismissals.

Today’s judgement should be given a cautious welcome by employers. Employers are now at greater risk of a claim should they refuse to allow an employee to wear a religious or philosophical belief symbol at work but may be able to justify such a decision. Employees who serve the public have been sent a clear signal that promoting equal opportunities and requiring them to act in a way which does not discriminate against service users overrides their religious or philosophical beliefs at work.

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