A case decided in England has raised important issues about the Freedom of Religion and Expression. Specifically, a woman decided to wear a cross around her neck to work – as a member of British Airways – and her employer was not particularly accommodating. In fact, the woman was restricted from wearing the cross pursuant to her conditions of employment – namely, that employees who decided to wear certain “accessories” for religious purposes needed to have such accessories covered at all times. If hiding the religious accessory would be impossible – given the nature of the item and the way it was to be worn – then the employee would have to go through local management in order to ensure that the religious accessory adhered to British Airways’ strict uniform code. Additionally, when an employee on a particular day showed up for work wearing an item that was not in accordance with the uniform code – e.g., a religious accessory or item – the employee was forced to remove the item or accessory, or go home and change clothes.
On May 20, 2006 and August 7, 2006, Ms. Eweida of British Airlines decided to demonstrate her commitment to her Christian faith by not concealing the cross she wore around her neck. On the second date, her supervisor told her to conceal the religious accessory or she would be sent home without pay. On this occasion, Ms. Eweida obliged. However, she did not on September 20, 2006 and was forced to return home, without pay, until she decided to comply with her contractual obligation of conforming to British Airways’ uniform code. On October 23, 2006, Ms. Eweida was offered an administrative position, where she would not have any contact with the public as was required in her previous position. She promptly rejected this offer, and filed a labor grievance.
A number of news articles were highly critical of British Airways regarding the case involving Ms. Eweida. Accordingly, beginning on February 1, 2007, the display of religious symbols was permitted on a British Airways uniform “when authorized.” The Star of David was immediately authorized in all cases, and Ms. Eweida was also authorized to wear her cross around her neck to work. She returned to work on February 2, 2007
However, British Airways refused to compensate Ms. Eweida for the time she chose not to come to work during the dispute. Thus, she filed a claim with the Employment Tribunal claiming discrimination of her religious faith. The tribunal held that the visible wearing of a cross was not a mandatory requirement of the Christian faith; rather, it was her personal choice. The tribunal also found that there was no evidence that any other employee, in a uniformed workforce numbering some 30,000, had ever made such a request or demand, much less refused to work if it was not met. The tribunal then reasoned that Ms. Eweida had failed to establish that the uniform policy had put Christians generally at a disadvantage, as was necessary in order to establish a claim of indirect discrimination.
Did this case come out the right way? Do you agree that only the mandatory” requirements” of the wearing of religious accessories should be regarded in the Tribunal’s analysis of indirect discrimination? Was the offer of the administrative position a feasible alternative to the conflict between Ms. Eweida’s desire to wear her “religious accessory,” and British Airways uniform code?
CASE OF EWEIDA AND OTHERS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM
I do not agree with the Court’s holding that only “the mandatory” requirements” of the wearing of religious accessories should be regarded in the Tribunal’s analysis of indirect discrimination. Historically, freedom of speech and freedom of religion does not work this way. We cannot limit freedom of speech to things that are “mandatory”. Expressing a religious belief is a personal choice, and people are free to participate in any religion of their choosing. Therefore, if they are able to participate in it, they should be able to publicly display it.
Additionally, the offer of the administrative position as a feasible alternative to the conflict is offensive. It was almost British Airway’s way of sweeping this problem under the rug. Furthermore, it shows that British Airway’s simply did not want to deal with this problem. On the other hand, maybe British Airways knew that their uniform code violated freedom of speech and religion, and they were hoping that they could get around it by giving Ms. Eweida a job where she would be out of the public light.
A question that struck me was: Why do they care? Is Ms. Eweida’s public display of her religion somehow hurting the company?
I believe that this case came out the wrong way. I feel that people should be proud of who they are and what they stand for. Religion is a part of an individual’s identity. It represents a person’s faith and beliefs. Wearing a cross or a Star of David is a symbol of faith. Some people wear a cross because they feel like they are more in tune with their religion and that God is with them. There are religious medallions for many different causes or interests. For example, Saint Joseph of Cupertino is the Patron Saint of Flying. Some people who are flight attendants might wear a medal of Saint Joseph in order to keep them safe on the flight. I know some people who received a cross when they were a baby and they have not taken it off since. They believe that by wearing the cross, it protects them and it is a sense of comfort and security. People should not have to conceal their faith like they are ashamed of it. I wear a cross every day with pride. I will not hide it or take it off because it is offensive or because someone tells me to. There is no justification or reason for the policy. I believe it is an insult to religions everywhere because it is telling people they should hide what they believe.
Obviously, whenever a restriction on religion is in place, numerous questions are brought up regarding freedom of religion. Personally, I believe that a restriction across the board for all religions is completely fine if a company or organization has a legitimate reason behind it. However, in a case such as this, where the display of a religious symbol can be worn “when authorized”, the company is treading in a very dangerous area. It raises a number of questions, such as who is in charge of authorizing the symbol? and what is the process of authorization? This same problem occurred in the Tribunal’s analysis, where the court must determine if a religious accessory is a mandatory requirement of the religion for a showing of indirect discrimination. Thus, leaving the determination of the importance of a religious symbol (to a specific individual) up to the courts can open a Pandora’s box and create a number of problems.