British Women Sue After Crucifix Necklaces Cost Them Their Jobs

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A landmark court case over the rights of Christians to wear religious symbols at work is raising a debate about discrimination and the position of believers in British society.

Two British women have brought a case in front of the European Court of Human Rights after both were removed from their jobs after refusing to take off or cover their crosses, the Sunday Telegraph reports. Nadia Eweida, a 61-year-old former employee of British Airways, was suspended from the airline in 2006 for refusing to remove her cross necklace. The company claimed the jewelry violated the its uniform code. Nurse Shirley Chaplin was barred form active duty on the hospital floor by the National Health Service and moved to a desk job after she too refused to cover the cross she wore on a necklace, ending her 31-year nursing career.

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Eweida’s case continued until 2010 when she lost her challenge at the Court of Appeal. (British Airways has since changed its uniform policy.) London-based public affairs magazine the New Statesman details the court’s decision that wearing a cross or crucifix is a matter of personal choice and not a mandate of the religion. This exempts the symbol of Christianity from the special status given to other religious emblems like the Muslim hijab or Sikh turban under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to the Telegraph, the government will use the same line of reasoning during the appeal to the human rights court.

Both sides point to Article 9 as the basis for their argument. Lawyers for the women claim that religious protection offered by the Article 9 extends beyond the requirements of the faith cited by the Court of Appeal. The article states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

This case has stirred debate from religious leaders and Christian groups about the “marginalization” of the religion. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, told the newspaper the case was another example of “Christianity becoming sidelined in official life.” Carey has long warned of the attack on the “rich legacy” of the faith in Britain.

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Some see the government’s refusal to recognize the cross as part of a larger failing to protect the Christian faith. Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, told the newspaper:

In recent months the courts have refused to recognize the wearing of a cross, belief in marriage between a man and a woman and Sundays as a day of worship as ‘core’ expressions of the Christian faith. What’s next? Will our courts overrule the Ten Commandments?

Judges at the human rights court in Strasbourg, France will decide if the case will move forward to hearings.

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