15/01/2013 04:33 GMT | Updated 15/01/2013 10:58 GMT

Nadia Eweida Wins Religious Cross Battle With British Airways After European Court Ruling

British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, who claimed she suffered religious discrimination at work because she was asked to remove her cross, has won a landmark legal battle at the European Court of Human Rights.

Nadia Eweida has been continuously employed by BA for 13 years

But three other claimants lost their cases, including that of marriage counsellor Gary McFarlane, who was sacked for saying he might object to offering sex therapy to homosexuals and registrar Lillian Ladele, who was disciplined after refusing to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.

Nurse Shirley Chaplin also lost her case despite being moved to a paperwork role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after she refused to take off a confirmation cross for health and safety reasons. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that health and safety on the wards more important than her religious rights.

The four had argued 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".

British Airways employee Nadia Eweida

Lawyers for the government contested their claims arguing that their rights are only protected in private.

Ms Eweida, 60, 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 the Coptic Christian, originally from Egypt, did not suffer religious discrimination.

Nadia is originally from Egypt

BA later changed its uniform policy to allow all symbols of faith, including crosses.

However Tuesday's ruling found a fair balance was not struck between Miss Eweida's desire to demonstrate her religious belief and BA's wish to "project a certain corporate image".

It found the airline's aim was "undoubtedly legitimate" but said domestic courts accorded it "too much weight".

It concluded: "Ms Eweida's cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance.

"There was no evidence that the wearing of other, previously authorised, items of religious clothing, such as turbans and hijabs, by other employees had any negative impact on British Airways' brand or image.

"Moreover, the fact that the company was able to amend the uniform code to allow for the visible wearing of religious symbolic jewellery demonstrates that the earlier prohibition was not of crucial importance.

Miss Eweida said she was "jumping for joy" at the decision but that she was disappointed for the other three applicants.

Speaking outside her lawyer's chambers in central London, she said:

"I was very selfish initially when I heard the verdict because I was jumping for joy and saying 'thank you Jesus'."

"I'm very happy and very happy and very pleased that Christian rights have been vindicated in the UK and Europe.

"It's a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith," she said.

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

Shirley Chaplin had worn her confirmation cross on a small chain around her neck, without incident, throughout her nearly thirty years in front-line nursing. Then, as part of a new uniform policy, she was told to remove it.

Her case was highlighted by the then Archbishop of Canterbury who said some Christians were stopped from wearing religious symbols at work because of "wooden-headed bureaucratic silliness".

The debate led to the Prime Minister declaring in the House of Commons in July saying: “I fully support the right of individuals to wear religious symbols at work... it is a vital religious freedom.”

Ms Chaplin said she was "very disappointed" by the ruling, saying the cross offered comfort to those she was treating. She said: "This to me is a bit like a wedding band and to take it off is a bit like divorcing God. They obviously dont understand faith. They didnt get it."

The ECHR concluded hospital managers were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety than a court.

The judgment stated: "There was also evidence that another Christian nurse had been requested to remove a cross and chain; two Sikh nurses had been told they could not wear a bangle or kirpan; and that flowing hijabs were prohibited.

"The applicant was offered the possibility of wearing a cross in the form of a brooch attached to her uniform, or tucked under a high-necked top worn under her tunic, but she did not consider that this would be sufficient to comply with her religious conviction."

Relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane, who would not counsel gay couples

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: "Today's judgment is an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense.

"Nadia Eweida wasn't hurting anyone and was perfectly capable of doing her job whilst wearing a small cross.

"She had just as much a right to express her faith as a Sikh man in a turban or a Muslim woman with a headscarf.

"British courts lost their way in her case and Strasbourg has actually acted more in keeping with our traditions of tolerance.

"However the Court was also right to uphold judgments in other cases that employers can expect staff not to discriminate in the discharge of duties at work."

Clockwise from right: Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lillian Ladele, Gary McFarlane

Andrea Minichiello Williams, Director of the Christian Legal Centre, said before the ruling: "These are landmark cases and we have waited a long time to get to this point.

"At stake is not only the future shape of Christian involvement in community life but the protection of important personal freedoms in a diverse society."

The Christian Legal Centre is directly supporting McFarlane and Chaplin.

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

Mr McFarlane, from Bristol, was hired by the Avon branch of national charity Relate to work as a relationship counsellor in 2003 but was dismissed for gross misconduct in 2008 after he suggested he may have an issue discussing sexual problems with homosexual couples.

Charity Christian Concern said Mr McFarlane never refused to provide the therapy outright but told his managers if such a situation arose he would discuss it with them.

Miss Ladele was disciplined by Islington Council, in north London, when she said she did not wish to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

Lawyers claim her employer could easily have accommodated her beliefs because other registrars were prepared to meet demand for the service.

Michael Powner, head of Employment team at Charles Russell LLP, said in a statement to the Huffington Post UK:

"Both Ladele and McFarlane's interests had to be balanced with the convention rights of others and the UK courts have a wide margin to do this.

"The ECHR found they acted within the wide margin available. The judgment is a sensible one, highlighting the balancing act that has to take place when different convention rights compete in different factual scenarios. One right does not automatically trump others."

Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, the religion and society think tank, said the courts are erring on the side of limiting rather than accommodating faith and the judgements threaten "the foundation of all our freedoms."

She said: "These individual cases are complex, but the judgements matter because they will influence a larger conversation about the place of Christianity in the UK.

"Religious freedom has historically been foundational in Britain, going back in some ways more than 300 years. It the basis on which other freedoms, such as speech and conscience, were slowly built. Although it is often uncomfortable, it is a well-spring for democratic health.

The more we chip away at the right to live and act according to our deepest commitments, the more we chip away at the foundation of all our freedoms.”

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said the case was likely to determine the future direction of equality law in Britain, and potentially in Europe.

He said: "We believe any further accommodation of religious conscience in UK equality law would create a damaging hierarchy of rights, with religion at the top."