The British Airways (BA) crucifix case which reached the Court of Appeal today is “not worth the legal fees incurred”, and serves as a stark reminder to employers to build discretion into workplace dress codes, an employment lawyer has warned.
Darren Sherborne, head of employment and partner at Rickerbys law firm, told Personnel Today the case – whereby devout Christian Nadia Eweida is claiming BA discriminated against her when she refused to remove her cross necklace at work – highlights employers’ ability to “lose track of what’s important”.
He urged HR professionals to allow flexibility in their uniform policies to prevent religious cases of this nature reaching court.
Eweida, who had been a check-in worker at the airline for seven years, was suspended in 2006 after she refused to stop wearing the Christian symbol.
She claims the suspension was discriminatory, especially since the airline allows Sikh employees to wear traditional iron bangles, and Muslim workers are permitted to wear head scarves.
In 2007, BA changed its uniform policy, which saw Eweida return to work.
Sherborne told the magazine: “This case highlights our ability as a profession to lose track of what’s important, and what staff come to work for. If the manager in question had been asked to stand back and remind themselves as to the reason for being in business, and the aim of being in business, the issue of the employee displaying a religious symbol would not be one worthy of the legal fees incurred.”
The EAT found that the previous BA dress code did not disadvantage a particular group.
However, the case is important because it will decide what degree of protection is available to employees who have religious beliefs that are not necessarily widely shared by others of that faith.
Sherborne said: “If there had been a group who were disadvantaged, the employer could still successfully defend the claim by showing that the code was justified in any event. It is hard to see in this case however, how they would justify the code bearing in mind that the employer subsequently changed the code to allow Christian symbols.”
Eweida claims BA should admit its previous dress code policy was unlawful and pay her about £120,000 in damages and lost wages.
A BA spokeswoman said Eweida had been allowed to wear her cross for the past three years.
She said: “Her allegations that British Airways discriminated against her have been rejected by two tribunals. We are not prepared to admit that we have discriminated against Eweida when we have not done so.
“We will therefore defend our position before the Court of Appeal.”
The case continues.