A bid to change religious discrimination law in the UK has been taken to the European Court of Human Rights today.
Four Christians who had complaints of religious discrimination against their employers rejected by employment tribunals and courts in the UK, are arguing that the law here does not do enough to protect the religious beliefs of workers.
If the landmark challenge is successful, legal experts say that it would have wide ranging implications. Any resulting change in the law or the way it has to be interpreted would apply to all UK organisations.
“Since the claims against individual employers were rejected, the battleground has shifted. It is now the law itself that is being challenged and, by extension, the state,” explained Simon Rice-Birchall, partner at international law firm Eversheds.
The cases of Ladele and McFarlane v UK, and Eweida and Chaplin v UK, will be heard by the European court from today.
In 2010, Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin both lost religious discrimination cases against their respective employers – British Airways and the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospitals NHS Trust. Their claims centred on incidents where they were asked to remove their crucifixes at work for being in breach of uniform policy.
“If the court upholds the complaints made by Mrs Eweida and Mrs Chaplin this could, in effect, introduce a duty on employers, where reasonable, to accommodate workers’ desires to manifest their religious beliefs,” continued Rice-Birchall.
“Similar duties exist in the US and Canada, but only where making an adjustment would not cause undue hardship to the employer. However, although this would involve a shift in legal focus, it will still be the case that employers only have to make adjustments where it is reasonable to do so.”
He added that past European cases suggested the claimants might struggle to persuade the court that an unjustified infringement of their rights had occurred, particularly when the option of resigning was available to them if they felt strongly about acting on their religious beliefs.
The European court ruling is expected in several weeks, but Prime Minister David Cameron has already indicated that a change to UK law to enshrine the right to religious symbols in the workplace could be imminent.
Last year, a group of senior bishops raised concerns that Christians in the UK were being unfairly discriminated against or sidelined in the workplace, while staff of other faiths were treated more sensitively.