On May 13, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the British government made a surprise announcement. 

U.K. Equalities Minister Victoria Atkins has set her sights on companies who ban their staff from wearing religious items, such as crucifixes.

The new guidance, due to be published by the Government Equalities Office later this month, will clearly set out what businesses can and cannot tell their staff to wear.

New rules will state that: “Employers should be flexible and not set dress codes which prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work.”

This follows a case of religious discrimination that began 12 years ago. In October 2006, Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian employee of British Airways, was asked to cover up the cross she wore. She refused to do so. Thereafter, she was removed from her position. Christian groups accused British Airways of double standards as non-Christian groups such as Sikhs and Muslims were not prevented from wearing religious symbols at work. 

In 2008, Miss Eweida lost her case for religious discrimination at an employment tribunal. In 2010, she appealed to the Court of Appeal but lost again; the UK Supreme Court refused to hear her case. At the time, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said: “The news that Nadia Eweida’s appeal has failed is a sad blow both to her personally, and the cause of religious liberties and freedoms.”

Subsequently, Miss Eweida took her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg where, on January 2013, it ruled in her favour.The court found that her rights had been violated under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In its judgement the court stated: 

“Ms Eweida’s cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance. There was no evidence that the wearing of other, previously authorised, items of religious clothing, such as turbans and hijabs, by other employees, had any negative impact on British Airways’ brand or image.”

On hearing the judgement in court, it was reported Miss Ewedia cried out: “Thank you, Jesus!”

She was awarded damages of 2,000 euros plus legal costs of 30,000 euros.

ADF International provided funding for Eweida’s case and presented legal submissions to the European Court of Human Rights. Following the ruling, Paul Coleman, senior legal counsel for ADF International, said, “This is truly historic as it is the first time the United Kingdom has ever lost a religious freedom case before the European Court of Human Rights. We are delighted that the Court recognized that employees must not be discriminated against on the basis of their Christian faith.”

On that day, at the same court, another appeal by a British Christian, who also claimed employers had violated her rights, was turned down. European judges agreed that the banning of NHS nurse Shirley Chaplin from wearing a cross at her hospital workplace was permissible. 

Now, following the latest government’s announcement, it is the presumption that U.K. employers will exercise flexibility and understanding in the workplace in regard to employees who wear religious symbols. It is expected that government guidelines will also make clear that companies should consult their employees to give them a say over any proposed changes to their dress code in the workplace. 

Employers refusing to comply with the new rules could face court action, compensation costs or fines.

ComRes is an opinion research agency with a particular interest in religious belief in the workplace. In response to today’s government statement, its Faith Research Centre Director, Katie Harrison, told the Register, “Employers will welcome this guidance to help them interpret equality legislation. It’s an area many managers find tricky, as religious clothing and symbols can make people a target for abuse and harassment so some business leaders try to protect colleagues by stipulating a clothing policy which precludes religious dress. But this, of course, defeats the object, and sends a message that workers should hide an important part of themselves.”

She went on to add, “Employers will be reminded that they need to give a very clear reason which shows how wearing a cross will impede an employee’s ability to carry out their duties ... the guidance will clarify expectations.”