In a landmark judgment on religious freedom, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that there is a right to manifest individual faith by wearing religious adornments and that the religious beliefs of state employees cannot justify an exception to anti-discrimination laws. The Court in Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom joined four claims containing similar issues of religious freedom in the workplace. In all four cases, the applicants claimed that their rights to non-discrimination and free “thought, conscience or religion” had been violated by judgments in U.K. domestic courts. Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) guarantee the right to right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination. Two of the cases also included issues regarding the balance between the freedom to display religious symbols and an employer’s stated dress codes. The remaining two cases regarded an employee’s right to abstain from serving homosexual clients because of the employee’s personal religious beliefs.

On the issue of religious symbols, the two petitioners argued the employers placed undue restrictions on their religious freedom by prohibiting visible cross necklaces which represented their Christian faith. In balancing a British Airways employee’s wish to manifest her religious belief with her employer’s desire to project a certain corporate image, the Court found that the employer acted unfairly. Although the company’s desire was legitimate, the ECtHR found that the national courts had given too much weight to the employer’s interests in light of factors including the company permitting other religious symbols (such as turbans and hijabs), the discreet nature of the cross, and the lack of evidence that the employer’s reputation would be impacted. However, the second case shows that this right is not absolute. The Court deferred to the employer hospital’s assessment because they were better situated to make the decision given the safety and infection risks posed by a necklace in the healthcare setting. Thus, the nature of the workplace is relevant to enforcing dress codes that limit the display of religious symbols.

In the second issue, the Court found that the right to express religious beliefs is limited by a state’s obligation to not promulgate discriminatory practices. The petitioners, a public registrar and a publically employed relationship counselor, challenged their dismissals for refusing to serve gay and lesbian clients by arguing that it was disproportionate and discriminatory for employers to require employees to provide services to same-sex couples when doing so obligated them to violate their religious beliefs which compelled them to refuse to condone same-sex couples. The Court disagreed and found in both cases that the employers’ policies were aimed at providing services on a non-discriminatory basis to ensure the rights of all. The Court stressed that freedom of religion encompasses the freedom to manifest one’s religion, including in the workplace, but that a person’s religious practice can be restricted where it encroaches on the rights of others.

U.K. and European law both recognize religious freedom as a human right but not as an absolute right that applies irrespective of its effect on others. Thus, the Eweida judgment highlights this conflict where the Court must balance between respecting individuals rights to freedom of expressing one’s religion with collective rights to be free from discrimination.

In decisions such as in Dahlab v.Switzerland (2001), the Court has ruled that a person’s right to religious freedom is mitigated by work place duties, such as in declining to protect a teacher’s right to wear a head scarf in class, as in Dahlab.  Furthermore, the Court has held in cases such as Stedman v. United Kingdom (1997) that because an employee has the freedom to choose their employment, their right to religious freedom is not automatically obstructed by workplace requirements that touch on religion, such as in signing a contract for a job that requires work on Sunday, as in Stedman. In the Eweida judgment, the Court made a stronger statement for personal religious freedom and held that it is relevant to the principle of equality, and an employer’s policies that impinges upon religious freedom must be justified. Here, the Court weighed the employer’s interests and the employee’s ability to resign against the appropriateness of the restriction upon religious freedom. The Court affirmed the states’ wide discretion in reconciling these countervailing rights, and in many cases, this wide discretion provided by the Court will give states the ultimate decision for balancing these divergent rights.