Mary Onouha. Picture credit: Christian Legal Centre
Artillery Row

Take up your cross

Our battle to let Christians do what every other religion does

The cross is not a Christian symbol, we were told.

Many of the earliest Christian Legal Centre cases were about the freedom of Christians to demonstrate their faith in the workplace. Several of them were cases where Christians were told they could not display a cross in their workplace, for fear of causing offence.

Some of these were resolved before they got to the courts — for example in the case of Colin Atkinson, who had been told he had to remove a palm cross that had been visible in his work van. This was front page news on Easter Sunday in 2011, the Mail on Sunday printing “Hallelujah! An Easter victory as Christian electrician wins battle to display cross in his van”.

Another devoted nurse of spotless record had worn a cross all her life

In these cases, Christians had been treated very differently to people from other religions, supposedly because there is no requirement for Christians to wear crosses. This is theologically true, but legally misleading as I will explain.

As we fought various cases, the most extraordinary claim was from the government itself, under David Cameron, when it claimed to the European Court of Human Rights that the cross was not a generally recognised Christian symbol. 

So, our battle for Christians’ right to wear a cross to work has a long history. The lukewarm compromise position reached in the 2013 decision of the European Court of Human Rights was that, at any rate, British Airways had been wrong to require its flight assistant Nadia Eweida to keep her cross hidden under the uniform so as to protect its corporate image. Still, ECHR dared not question the “health and safety” excuses from the NHS for making a similar demand of Shirley Chaplin. 

The case of Mary Onuoha, just decided by the Employment Tribunal, had many parallels with Shirley Chaplin. Another devoted nurse of spotless record had worn a cross all her life, including 17 years of working in Croydon Hospital — and then hounded out of her job by two years of harassment from a bunch of officious NHS managers enforcing a “dress code’. Once again, the cross was treated simply as a piece of jewellery. Once again, the evidence was clear that the hospital was swarming with staff wearing other jewellery and non-Christian religious attire; and the management was happy to welcome hijabs, turbans, kalava bracelets, Sikh ceremonial daggers as “part of diversity” — but not crosses. Once again, we have heard the same absurdity from them about the cross harbouring infections, and that an angry patient might grab the chain and strangle the nurse. 

No doubt, they expected the result to be the same as in Shirley Chaplin. Indeed, one of the managers testified that she had looked up Shirley’s case, and was encouraged to clamp down on Mary’s cross in ways which the Tribunal has now found to be “high-handed” and “overly threatening” harassment and discrimination. 

Our prayer for wisdom and courage being given to judges in civil authority have now been answered. Mary’s perseverance in standing up for her faith, and that of her heroic predecessors Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin, have finally achieved vindication. The Tribunal has scrutinised the NHS’s “health and safety” excuses and found that there was no justification for treating the cross differently from hijabs and kalava bracelets. 

The employer’s conduct amounted to discrimination against Christians

The Tribunal has also found that the cross is not a piece of jewellery or a fashion accessory — it is “a symbol of Christianity” and it is “of central importance” to the faith of many Christians. Wearing a cross has many centuries of tradition behind it, and “stopping Christians from displaying the cross has been a feature of wider persecution campaigns”. After so many cases where judges refused to acknowledge that, the Tribunal has now found that “there is biblical teaching imploring Christians to be open about their faith and not to hide it”. 

This last point brings us to the wider significance which this judgment has for the protection given to Christians in the law of the land. 

The three-member tribunal was unanimous in condemning what has happened to Mary as discrimination, harassment, victimisation, breach of her human rights, and constructive unfair dismissal; but the members arrived at those conclusions by different routes. One member thought that the NHS managers in this case “had a particular problem with the cross”, and thus displayed “some form of conscious or subconscious prejudice towards the Christian faith”. The other two members thought they had no such prejudice — they simply enforced the dress code to the best of their understanding, but nonetheless, did so in an unjustified, arbitrary, high-handed, disproportionate way. Moreover, the dress code itself, insofar as it prohibited wearing a small cross on a fine chain, was discriminatory. The Tribunal has ruled that, either way, prejudiced or not, the employer’s conduct amounted to discrimination against Christians. 

This is because the law protects not only the right to have a religious belief, but also to “manifest” it, “alone or in community with others”, “in public or private”, “in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. Some limitations on that right are permissible, but only if they are “prescribed by law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. Otherwise, there is no difference in law between the belief itself and its “manifestation”; so persecution for wearing a cross amounts to the same thing as persecution for being a Christian, i.e. religious discrimination. 

The wider significance of this judgment is that there are many ways to “manifest” Christian beliefs. In so many cases, we have seen authorities and managers saying again and again that they only punish Christians not for what they believe, but for what they do: wearing crosses, praying for people, giving Bibles to people, quoting biblical passages, etc. This time, however, the Tribunal has made it clear: unless there is some fair and proportionate “justifiable objection” to a particular way of manifestation, that is a distinction without a difference. 

This important victory has been achieved at a high price, as recorded in the judgment. Mary had to persevere through two years of incessant harassment by her managers, one of whom “literally interrupted surgery” where she was responsible for a patient on the table “to address the issue”; and another kept re-deploying her for 18 months between “humiliating” non-clinical jobs, assisting receptionists and filing paperwork. She was eventually forced to resign — so the Hospital lost a dedicated and experienced nurse. Moreover, as the Tribunal found, there were other Christian members of staff in the same hospital who were not as courageous as Mary who gave in to pressure to hide their crosses. It is likely that there are also many other unknown Marys and Shirleys in other NHS hospitals up and down the country, standing up or giving in to similar harassment by management. 

The judgment makes it clear that Mary’s ordeal resulted in large part from the NHS managers’ misunderstanding of the Department of Health guidance on uniforms for its staff. If there is any truth in the claim that NHS treasures devoted and conscientious nurses, Sajid Javid should pay attention to this case. Nothing could be easier than to amend the guidance to clarify that the wearing of crosses by medical staff should be permitted. As this case demonstrates, that would save much trouble, tension, cost, injustice and give a proper understanding of what it means to promote religious freedom in the workplace. 

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