Employment Lawyers: Wearing Religious Symbols at Work

A British Airways (BA) employee, who received widespread publicity when she made a stand against her employer because she was not allowed to wear a silver crucifix at work if the necklace was visible, has lost her claim of religious discrimination at the Employment Tribunal (ET).

Nadia Eweida, 56, works for BA at Heathrow Airport, as a member of its check-in staff, and is therefore required to comply with the company’s uniform policy. When the issue was first raised, this stated that personal jewellery and items worn for religious reasons could only be worn underneath the uniform. Where this was not practical, an item of religious apparel could be worn, provided management approval was obtained. Miss Eweida, a practising Christian, refused to conceal her cross when asked to do so as she regarded it as an important visible expression of her faith. Other members of staff were allowed to wear headscarves or turbans and she wanted to display a symbol of her faith.

When she refused to cover up the cross, Miss Eweida was sent home and remained off work, unpaid, until February 2007, when she was reinstated after BA changed its uniform policy to allow staff to display a symbol of their faith.

Miss Eweida was of the view that the airline had been guilty of having ‘rules for one minority group but not the other’ and brought a claim for direct and indirect discrimination and harassment, under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, as well as a claim for unlawful deduction of wages.

The ET dismissed her claims. The claim of direct discrimination failed because BA would have treated any employee wearing a necklace displaying a symbol of their faith in the same way. Miss Eweida had not been treated less favourably than any other employee in the same circumstances. The claim of indirect discrimination failed because BA had applied its standard uniform policy when asking her to remove the cross and this did not put Christians at a particular disadvantage compared with any other group. As regards the harassment claim, there was no evidence of unwanted conduct on the part of BA. The company had sought to enforce its uniform policy and there was no evidence that Miss Eweida had been treated differently because of her religious beliefs.

In considering the claim for unlawful deduction from wages, the ET held that Miss Eweida was contractually obliged to abide by BA’s uniform policy. As she had failed to perform the contract in full, BA was within its rights to refuse to pay her.

Employers should always exercise caution when enforcing dress code policies to ensure that they do not discriminate against some employees without justification.


Pinder Reaux & Associates