Are uniform policies a thing of the past now?

Peninsula Team

February 03 2013

Yes - if you are seeking to prevent staff from wearing religious items merely to protect your corporate image. However, whilst the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a uniform policy banning employees from visibly wearing religiously symbolic jewellery was an act of unlawful discrimination, the judgement is not as far reaching as some might initially think.

Nadia Eweida initially took on British Airways who refused to allow her to wear a visible cross on a necklace. Eweida is a Christian and claimed that the ban was an act of religious discrimination against her and other Christian colleagues.

The case centred around the objective justification of the reason behind the ban – this is because the complaint was one of indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination, while on the face of it is unlawful, can be excused if the reason for the discrimination can be objectively justified i.e. is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Indirect discrimination occurs when a practice is applied by an employer to all of their employees, but the practice disproportionately affects a group of employees to their detriment.

The court found that the policy constituted indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion that could not be objectively justified because too much weight had been placed on BA’s desire to project their corporate image, which opposed Eweida’s desire to manifest her religious beliefs.

Eweida’s case was joined with another three cases where the individuals had all claimed indirect religious discrimination. One of the cases was similar to Eweida’s in that the act complained of was a uniform policy prohibiting employees to wear necklaces. The employee was a nurse and her employer, Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust, implemented the policy on the basis of the avoidance of health and safety risks, such as patients grabbing the necklace and pulling it off, and the necklace falling into an open wound. The employee was a Christian and alleged that the prohibition on wearing necklaces discriminated against her because it meant she could not wear a cross around her neck – the way that she had chosen to manifest her religious beliefs.

This claim of discrimination failed because the Court deemed that health and safety was more important than the employee’s wish to manifest her religious beliefs by wearing a cross on a necklace.

In summary, a desire to project a corporate image has been shown to be an insufficient reason to prohibit visible religious jewellery in the workplace. However, health and safety reasons did, in this circumstance, pass the test.

This is not the only time that dress codes have been tested in light of religious discrimination. In 2007, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that a Council had not discriminated against a Muslim teacher in requiring that she remove her veil when teaching because the school children engaged better with her when she was not wearing it.

By Nicola Mullineux.

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