Alex Bearman, Partner, Russell Cooke LLP, said:
“The significance of this judgment for employers is that it is now likely to be very difficult to impose an outright ban on the wearing of religious symbols at work. In particular, concerns about the display of religious symbols interfering with a company’s desire for its employees to project a certain corporate image are unlikely to find favour with the courts and tribunals.
“It is quite possible that a policy which prohibits the display of religious symbols in order to prevent religious views being promoted at work would also be difficult to maintain following this judgment. However, the position will be different where the reasons for a ban can be shown to be important, such as in the case of genuine concerns about health and safety.”
“In the cases of Mr McFarlane and Ms Ladele, there was no discrimination because it was found that the right balance had been struck between the protection of the rights of same-sex couples and the right to manifest certain religious beliefs.
“Had they been successful, employers could have been put in the difficult position of having to assess whether a worker who wished to avoid duties which could be seen as promoting homosexuality was motivated by genuine religious beliefs or personal views unrelated to religion.”
Agreeing with the decisions of the Court, Dr Erica Howard, who recently published ‘Law and the Wearing of Religious Symbols: European Bans on the Wearing of Religious Symbols in Education’, stated:
“This verdict is a signal to employers that they have to set sensible policies regarding the wearing of religious clothing and symbols. It demonstrates that reasonable requests from employees cannot be refused without seriously considering them. And that uniform policies and dress codes need to be made with consideration of the issues of religious dress and symbols.
“The rights of workers really hang together with the duty on the employers – it is a matter of balancing the interests of individual employees and the interests of the employer.”
In regards to Mr McFarlane and Ms Ladele, Dr Howard said:
“The case of the registrar and the Relate counsellor show that employees cannot expect every request to be allowed: especially not if it interferes with a human right of another person – not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation for example. I think the Court was right in letting the protection of the rights of others trump the right to freedom of religion in these cases.”
To hear Workplace Law’s Head of HR, Suzanne McMinn, discuss these cases in more detail click here.