This week’s decision by the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECHR’) in four claims of religious discrimination brought by UK Claimants highlights a number of issues that seem to hinder the ever turning wheels of justice. I say ever-turning wheels but in the lead case of Eweida and others v the United Kingdom, Ms Eweida presented her originating claim to the Employment Tribunal all the way back in December 2006. Not that the UK justice system must shoulder all of the blame. It took the ECHR two years to turn around these four cases (which were considered together). The second issue which arises is the manner in which such cases are reported in the press and other information outlets.
Very briefly, the facts in Ms Eweida’s case were that as a Coptic Christian, she wished to openly wear a cross around her neck. British Airways, the employer, believed that this contravened the company’s policy on uniform and accessories. Ms Eweida alleged that in not being allowed to wear the cross, BA not only discriminated against her but also infringed her human rights. Relatively straightforward so far. That is, unless you are well known MP Nadine Dorries (of ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ fame) who tweeted that “...judges will decide whether or not the wearing of a cross is a necessary requirement of Christian faith”. Now, I am sure that there are many people who think that the ECHR’s jurisdiction should be much wider but extending to ecumenical matters may be a step too far. To compound matters, the MP also referred to Ms Eweida being sacked for wearing a cross – she is actually still employed by BA and has been throughout the dispute. Still, mistakes may be forgiven so long as the impact of the ECHR’s judgment is reported accurately. You’d be forgiven for thinking (assuming that you had taken any interest!) that these four cases amounted to a legal landmark, a momentous day in the history of the laws of England and Wales.
The cases were certainly newsworthy. But what does not shine through the reporting is that whilst Ms Eweida was successful, the remaining three Claimants were not. One of those cases also involved wearing a cross and the others related to a relationship counselor and a marriage registrar respectively not wanting to work with same sex couples. The essence of the ECHR’s decision is actually that the current law in England and Wales does protect religious beliefs at work but not where those beliefs infringe on the legal rights of other people. In that context, the law remains good and no change to it is required. In Ms Eweida’s case, it appeared to be simply that her cross did not fit in with BA’s corporate image. It may have taken over 6 years to achieve justice but she got there in the end. Nick Wilson is responsible for the employment law service at Crooks Commercial Solicitors Limited, a specialist commercial law firm with experience in many sectors including recruitment. Contact Nick on 01924 669159, email at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ccs-law.co.uk.