The Equality and Human Rights Commission announced that it would be working with employers and religious groups to help them interpret the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on a series of cases involving religious freedom in the workplace.
The Court found that Nadia Eweida suffered a breach of her right to religious freedom, which is in line with the Commission’s intervention submitted to the European Court.
However, in another case involving the wearing of a cross at work – that of Shirley Chaplin, a nurse – the Court ruled that health and safety considerations meant that the UK court reached the right conclusion in supporting her employer’s actions.
The Commission’s view is that the Government should now look at the need to change the law to take the European Court judgment into account. However, until this takes place, there is potential for confusion for both employers and employees following the ruling. This is in particular due to the fact that the Court found that Eweida had suffered discrimination but that Chaplin had not.
The Commission will therefore be publishing new guidance on this issue for employers and employees, to help them avoid further confusion and potentially costly litigation while the government considers whether to change the law.
The Commission also welcomed the Court’s statement of principle that “as enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the European Convention.’
Mark Hammond, CEO of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said:
“The right of people to express their religious belief is a vital freedom, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, so we welcome part of today’s decision by the European Court. This was in line with our advice that people should not suffer unjustified discrimination on the grounds of wearing of religious symbols.
“However there is a lot of scope for confusion following the ruling, so the Commission will be issuing guidance to employers and employees to help them and avoid further costly and divisive legal action.
“A lot of the confusion and confrontation on this issue could have been avoided if we can work together to come up with common sense approaches to the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace rather than divisive, lengthy and expensive court cases. The Commission is therefore also working with the government to bring together people from different faiths, from secular and humanist groups and employers to develop ideas for how these issues can be resolved.”