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Christian airline worker can wear cross, Europe court says

Yui Mok/PA via AP

British Airways employee Nadia Eweida celebrates winning her religious rights case outside her lawyer's office in London Tuesday.

A Christian airline worker in England who was sent home for wearing a small silver cross at work has won a lawsuit in which she alleged her right to freedom of religion had been violated.

In a judgment Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ordered that the United Kingdom should pay Nadia Eweida, who works for British Airways, about $2,675 in damages and $40,000 in costs.

However another Christian worker, Shirley Chaplin, lost her case that she should be allowed to wear a crucifix while working as a nurse in a hospital geriatric ward in Devon, England.

The court accepted hospital managers’ arguments that the cross “could cause injury if a patient pulled on it or if, for example, it came into contact with an open wound,” the court said in a statement.

Patients’ health and safety was “inherently of much greater importance” than Chaplin’s right to wear a cross, the court said.

The judgment also dealt with two other separate claims in which practicing Christians from the U.K. complained they had been fired for refusing to carry out duties that they considered would condone homosexuality.

Lillian Ladele, a registrar of births, deaths and marriages, and Gary McFarlane, who worked for the marriage guidance charity Relate, both lost their claims with the court noting that in both cases “the employer was pursuing a policy of non-discrimination” and that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation was against the European Convention on Human Rights.

The decisions are not final as they can be appealed to the court’s “Grand Chamber.”

British premier 'delighted'
Eweida’s victory was welcomed by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who said on Twitter that he was “delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld – ppl shouldn't suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs.”

Eweida said when she heard the verdict she was “very selfish initially” because “I was jumping for joy and saying ‘thank you Jesus,’” according to the U.K.’s ITV News.

“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.

“I'm disappointed on behalf of the other three applicants but I fully support them in their asking for a referral for their cases to be heard in the Grand Chamber, and I wish them every success in the future to win,” she added.

In its statement, the court said Eweida was sent home without pay in 2006 after she decided to start wearing a cross on a chain on top of her uniform in defiance of British Airway's then policy to allow no visible jewelry. She returned to work in 2007 after BA changed its rules to allow religious and charity symbols.

The court said freedom of religion was “an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies.”

However it added that “where an individual’s religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made.”

'Common sense'
Shami Chakrabarti, director of U.K. human rights group Liberty, said in an emailed statement that the judgment was “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 said. "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.”

"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,” she added.

On the issue of wearing crosses at work, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the U.K.’s National Secular Society, said in a statement that Eweida had won “a very limited victory which simply means that if employers want to prevent an employee wearing religious symbol for corporate image purposes, they must prove that their image is negatively affected by such manifestations of belief.”

“In the case of Chaplin we are pleased that the court has acknowledged that employers are better placed than the court to decide if jewellery is a health and safety risk and did not support the idea of blanket permission to wear religious symbols in the workplace,” he added.

Porteous Wood said if Ladele and McFarlane had won this would have “driven a coach and horses through the equality laws.” 

“The rights of gay people to fair and equal treatment would have been kicked back by decades,” he added.

British Christians who want to wear a cross at work have won a victory at the highest court in Europe. They can wear them, the European Court of Human Rights ruled when it sided with Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was banned by the airline wearing a cross to work. ITV's Penny Marshall reports.