Employment Law, Oddstuff

Religion in the workplace

What are the rights of employees when it comes to expressing their religious belief in the workplace? And is conduct, attitude, attire based on religion a ‘right’ at all? Is it unlawful discrimination if an employer restricts or even prohibits an employee from expressing their religious beliefs in the workplace?

These questions are not new but opinions for either side have become more and more emotionally charged and hence entrenched. People tend to forget, but one of the first court decisions in this respect was about the Catholic Church and the display of crosses in public schools. I am talking about the German ‘Crucifix-Verdict’ of course, a ground-breaking decision by the German Constitutional Court in 1995 which held that regulations requiring the display of Christian crosses in every classroom were illegal (ultra vires). It was a decision which shook the (German) nation and lead to endless discussions, editorials and TV talkshows.  

And then there is the decision by the European Court for Human Rights which held in 2011 that the display of a Christian cross in a classroom is not in breach of the Human Rights Charta (“freedom of religion”).  So less than 20 years later we have the highest European Court saying the complete opposite, but no one seems to have noticed. Or care anymore, which probably goes to show that  court decisions around religious customs are commonplace these days.

Like this case about a clinical nurse, working in geriatric care, who, when a new uniform was introduce, was ordered by her employer  to remove the crucifix on a chain she wore every day as it could be a health and safety hazard (for instance could be grabbed by a patient). The nurse refused, claiming her religious beliefs. She also refused the offered compromise of wearing a turtle-neck t-shirt to cover the cross and chain as the cross had to be visible.  The employment tribunal held that the employer’s actions were not discriminatory as it followed a reasonable and proportionate policy objective. 

This is one of those claims where common sense dictates that there cant be any other outcome and one cant help but wonder why the nurse pursued this claim in the first place. But thats the freedom of religion for you and the age we live in. The matter has now even been appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.  Although her claim is now slightly different (UK law does not protect freedom of religion instead of the employer breaches my freedom of religion), the ECHR will also need to balance the obligations of the employer to provide a safe workplace against the right of the employee to express their religious beliefs.

You dont need to be lawyer to predict the outcome. And you also dont need to be a lawyer to predict that hardly anyone will notice the decision (again).