The extent to which an employer is entitled to restrict an employee's freedom to wear religious symbols at has been examined in two significant cases in the European Court of Human Rights.
Ms Eweida worked for British Airways. She sought to wear a cross visibly rather than concealed under her clothing. She said that her employer, who allowed the wearing of turbans and hijab had indirectly discriminated against her.
The European Court found that whilst the aim of the employer to establish a brand identity in clothing was legitimate, the means of achieving that legitimate aim was not proportionate. It held that the right to manifest religious belief was a fundamental right in a healthy democratic society. The Court found that there was no evidence that the wearing of the other religious clothing such as turbans or hijabs had any negative impact on British Airways brand or image and that in any event the cross was a discreet symbol which did not impact upon the brand identity.
Ms Chaplin was a nurse. She wanted to wear a cross on a chain around her neck. She was employed by a public authority. The public authority considered that there was a risk to health and safety posed by the wearing of the cross. There was also evidence of other religious items of clothing being restricted on health and safety grounds. In Miss Chaplin's case the Court held that the restriction imposed by the employer was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
Accordingly, we now have two cases, one upholding the right to wear a cross and another upholding the right of the employer to restrict the wearing of a cross at work. Both cases illustrate the need, when considering whether a restriction on religious clothing is lawful, to examine the actual facts in each case.