Four Christians arguing for their right to religious freedom at work before the European Court of Human Rights yesterday were told that they could simply resign if they felt employer-imposed restrictions clashed with their beliefs.
The four are challenging rulings in the British courts that they were not discriminated against on religious grounds. Yesterday the court in Strasbourg heard arguments for all four, including the British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, 60, who was sent home in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross. An employment tribunal has ruled that the Coptic Christian did not suffer discrimination.
In a similar matter, nurse Shirley Chaplin, 56, was moved to a paperwork role by the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust in Devon after refusing to remove a crucifix, which it argued could cause injury.
The court also heard from lawyers representing Gary McFarlane, 50, a marriage counsellor, who was sacked for refusing to give sex therapy to homosexuals and registrar Lillian Ladele, 51, who was disciplined after she declined to conduct same-sex civil partnerships.
The four contend their employers contravened articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibit religious discrimination and allow "freedom of thought, conscience and religion".
Yesterday James Eadie QC, representing the Government, said "Employees are free to resign if they consider that the requirements of their employment are incompatible with their religious beliefs."
The hearing was adjourned and the court reserved its judgment to a date yet to be set.
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Secular groups have warned that if successful, the quartet's legal challenge could create a "damaging hierarchy of rights with religion trumping all".