People with strong religious beliefs are free to express their faith privately but cannot insist their employer accommodate it, a landmark hearing on religious freedom has heard.

Four British Christians who claim they were discriminated against because of their faith have taken their fight to the European Court of Human Rights.

The court in Strasbourg, France, heard the cases of two workers forced out of their jobs after visibly wearing crosses, a Relate therapist sacked for saying he might not be comfortable giving sex counselling to homosexual couples, and a Christian registrar who wishes not to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

They argue that the actions of their employers contravened articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit religious discrimination and allow "freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

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Relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane, who would not counsel gay couples

But a lawyer for the government, which is contesting the claim, argued that their rights are protected in private only.

James Eadie QC, representing the UK government, told the nine judges that British domestic law struck a fair and compatible balance.

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"These four linked cases at their core raise questions about the rights and the limits to the rights of employees to force their employers to alter employment conditions to accommodate the employees' religious practices," he said.

"The convention protects individuals' rights to manifest their religion outside their professional sphere. However that does not mean that in the context of his or her employment an individual can insist on being able to manifest their beliefs in any way they choose."

He added: "There is no basis for interfering with that conclusion."

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A close-up of the necklace worn by British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, outside the Royal Courts of Justice

British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, from Twickenham, south-west London, received widespread publicity when she was sent home in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross or hide it from view.

An employment tribunal ruled Ms Eweida, whom court documents say is a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt, had not suffered religious discrimination, but the airline changed its uniform policy after the case to allow all religious symbols, including crosses.

Nurse Shirley Chaplin, from Exeter, was moved to a paperwork role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after refusing to remove a necklace bearing a crucifix.

Gary McFarlane, a Bristol marriage counsellor, was sacked for refusing to give sex therapy to homosexuals and registrar Lillian Ladele was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London.

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Shirley Chaplin wears her cross necklace as she leaves an employment tribunal

The four, whose cases have been publicly backed by Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, argue that the actions of their employers contravened articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit religious discrimination and allow "freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

James Dingemans QC, representing Eweida, said she was a committed practicing Christian who wore a small cross as a "personal expression of faith" and worked alongside Sikhs, Muslims and Jews who were allowed to wear items with religious significance, including skull caps and the hijab.

"Miss Eweida regarded wearing and displaying the cross as integral to her identity and being," he said.

"She is hardly the first Christian who has wanted to wear the cross as a distinguishing feature of her faith."

The hearing was adjourned and the court reserved its judgment to a date yet to be set.