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European Court decides fate for employees who claim faith discrimination

On 15th January, the European Court of Human Rights is due to give its decision on the cases of four UK employees who say they were discriminated against in the workplace because of their faith.

The Court will have considered whether the UK has breached the claimants' right to express their religious beliefs in the workplace.

Claire Dawson, a lawyer at Slater and Gordon specialising in Employment Law, is available to speak to the implications of the European Court’s decision. It is expected the Court will uphold the UK’s original ruling on the matter – confirming an employer may impose certain ‘reasonable limits’ on an employee's rights to religious expression in the workplace.

Two of the four claimants argued they were discriminated against when they were required to perform a same-sex civil partnership and psychosexual counselling for same-sex couples respectively. The UK Tribunals and Courts held that Lilian Ladele’s and Gary McFarlane’s employers were entitled to require them to provide these services in order to comply with the organisations' equality and diversity policies.  

Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin complained that their employers' uniform policies, which had strict prohibitions on the wearing of jewellery, interfered with their right to manifest their religion by wearing a cross. The UK Courts said that these policies did not put Christians as a group at a disadvantage and did not amount to Religious Discrimination – as in Christianity it is not required to wear a cross in order to practise the religion.

In the past, successful claims have been brought in relation to wearing garments or jewellery on religious grounds. This decision is not expected to limit successful claims in the future. Socially-responsible employers consult widely with unions and employees when putting a uniform policy in place in order to respect different religious and cultural traditions. Employers also commonly allow unpaid time off to observe holy days and provide prayer facilities.   

Claire Dawson, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said:

“We are not surprised to see the European Court of Human Rights have upheld the decisions of the UK courts.

“From a legal perspective, this decision means if you are an employee who has strong religious convictions you will still be able to ask your employer to accommodate those values. What this decision has told us, is that employers are not obliged to make those accommodations in circumstances where they may conflict with other employees or service users’ right to equality. In our view, employers will still be obliged in many cases to accommodate reasonable requests relating to uniform.  

“As an employment lawyer, our recommendation for individuals in a similar situation would be to take legal advice and research your position carefully before you take a stance with your employer.”

“It is important to remember that discriminating against a person purely because of their religion, as opposed to the way they wish to express certain religious beliefs, is completely prohibited by UK law. This decision does not change that.”