STRASBOURG (Reuters) — Europe's top human rights court has ruled that equality laws and safety concerns trumped religious freedom in three cases where British Christians were sacked or sanctioned for expressing their beliefs at work.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled employers did not violate the religious rights of a registrar who refused to officiate for civil partnerships of same-sex couples and a counsellor deemed unwilling to offer sex therapy for homosexuals.
It also turned down an appeal by a nurse whose hospital barred her from wearing a cross around her neck. In the fourth case in the verdict, a British Airways clerk suspended for wearing a cross won her appeal and was awarded damages.
The ruling can be appealed to the ECHR's Grand Chamber. If upheld, it would mean European companies must balance employees' rights to express religious beliefs on the job against equality laws meant to end discrimination, especially against gays.
"The principle of non-discrimination against gay people has been upheld," said Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society.
British Prime Minister David Cameron reacted to the one appeal upheld by the court and said on Twitter:
"Delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld — people shouldn't suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs."
Cameron has pledged to introduce legislation allowing individuals to wear religious symbols at work.
"These cases demonstrate the difficulty of divorcing a belief from its practice," said Paul Lambdin, an employment law expert with the British firm Stevens and Bolton.
The effect would be that "others with similar religious convictions may be lawfully excluded from certain jobs".
In the case of the British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, the court found that BA's "wish to project a certain corporate image" did not take precedence over her religious rights.
BA's dress code in 2006, when she was suspended, allowed Sikh turbans and Muslim headscarves but not crosses. She returned to work 17 months later when the code was changed to allow Christian and Jewish symbols.
"I am very pleased that Christian religious rights have been vindicated both in the United Kingdom and in Europe," she said. "I am disappointed on behalf of the three applicants and I fully support them if they ask for a referral of their cases to the Grand Chamber."
In the other case of religious symbols, the court agreed with hospital officials that nurse Shirley Chaplin's cross could cause injury to her if a patient pulled it or it came into contact with an open wound.
It said "the protection of health and safety in a hospital ward" was "inherently more important" than her desire to manifest her religious belief.
The court found the London borough of Islington was right to discipline registrar Lillian Ladele in 2007 for refusing to perform ceremonies for gay civil unions, which she said her faith did not approve of.
The ECHR also rejected the appeal of relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane, who was dismissed in 2008 because his employers concluded his Christian beliefs would stand in the way of providing sex therapy to homosexual couples.
Lawyer Lambdin expressed surprise that the court rejected Ladele's appeal because her employer had arranged rotas to allow her and some Muslim registrars to avoid same-sex cases.
The ECHR has in the past given considerable leeway to member states to regulate the wearing of religious dress and display religious symbols in public.
It has allowed a French school to require Muslim students to remove headscarves for sports classes but also let Italian state schools leave crucifixes hanging in classrooms.