Miss Eweida claimed that British Airways (BA) refusal to let her wear a small cross with her uniform was religious discrimination. Although the case caused BA much negative publicity, the tribunal actually dismissed the claim.
BA’s uniform policy was strict and allowed only mandatory religious items that could not be covered up by the uniform, and that management had approved. Requests for approval were assessed on their merits and pending an outcome the member of staff concerned was required to observe the policy as it stood. The policy made some obvious allowances, for example for turbans, which had to be of a specified colour.
Following the introduction of a new uniform policy in 2004, allowing open-necked shirts, Eweida’s cross became visible, in breach of the policy. However, she refused to remove the cross, so BA sent her home, in line with the policy.
The tribunal held that BA’s policy did not directly discriminate against Eweida on religious grounds because anyone wearing such a symbol, or indeed jewellery of any kind, would have been treated in the same way regardless of their religion.
There was an exception for mandatory religious items which could not be concealed but Eweida’s case did not fall into this category. The policy did not put her at more of a disadvantage than someone of a different or of no faith. The tribunal also said that the policy did not indirectly discriminate against Christians as it did not put Christians at a particular disadvantage compared with other persons. The policy did not create a barrier for Christians to work at BA.
Having said that, Eweida was eventually allowed to wear her cross for work, because BA reviewed its policy, which it had always maintained was subject to ongoing review, before the hearing.
- Refusing to allow an employee to wear a cross at work was not discriminatory on grounds of religion and belief, where the strict uniform policy treated comparable employees of different faiths in the same way.
- The evidence showed that BA operated a policy which did permit employees to challenge it, and each request was assessed on its merits.
- Having a uniform policy is a legitimate business aim but its requirements must be proportionate to that business aim.
What you should do
- If you do have a uniform policy, enforce it consistently.
- Have a process by which the policy can be updated and stick to it.
- Analyse the discriminatory impact of the policy to ensure that it is fair.