Nurse to go to tribunal in row over cross

A Christian nurse re-assigned to an office role after refusing to take off a necklace bearing a cross will take her case to an employment tribunal next week, a hospital said today.

Shirley Chaplin, 54, claims the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital was trying to prevent her from expressing religious beliefs.

In response to the controversy last September, the trust said the policy was nothing to do with the crucifix specifically, and instead motivated by health and safety concerns about patients grabbing necklaces.

Mrs Chaplin's case for discrimination on religious grounds will begin in her home city of Exeter tomorrow.

The court must decide if her employer "subjected her to discrimination on grounds of her religion" after attempts to resolve the matter failed, the trust said today.

Previously employed on the infection and isolation ward caring for the elderly and vulnerable, she has been redeployed to a nursing administration role.

That is "with full pay protection, pending ongoing attempts to find an acceptable compromise", the trust added.

Lynn Lane, the trust's human resources director, said: "The trust has fully acknowledged that this has become an important issue for Mrs Chaplin, which is why we offered her a number of different options in the hope that a mutually acceptable solution could be agreed.

"We are very disappointed that this matter could not have been resolved before now. For the trust, this has always been about compliance with our agreed uniform policy and the safety of staff and patients. Our policy on necklaces accords with most other trusts' dress codes and Department of Health guidelines.

"Sadly, it appears that Mrs Chaplin may have been deflected from agreeing a sensible and pragmatic resolution of this dispute by the involvement of other parties outside the trust."

Speaking last September, when she was eight months from retirement, Mrs Chaplin said: "For about 30 years I have worked in the NHS and nursed patients day and night and on no occasion has my cross caused me or anyone else any injury - and to my knowledge, no patient has ever complained about me wearing it.

"The trust even refused to test the 'breaking strain' on the necklace."

She added: "Everyone I have ever worked with has clearly known I am a Christian: it is what motivates me to care for others."

She claimed other members of staff have been allowed to wear necklaces. The trust said necklaces of all kinds are banned but admitted there may have been "lapses".

She continued: "This smacks of double standards and appears to discriminate against Christians.

"This blatant piece of political correctness amounts to the marginalising of employees' personal human rights, a blanket 'secularising and neutralising' of the NHS intended to stop Christians from expressing their faith in the public services of the NHS."

In February, Nadia Eweida, 58, lost an appeal against a ruling which cleared British Airways of discrimination by stopping her wearing a cross visibly at work.

The Christian, from Twickenham, south-west London, had wanted three judges to overturn a decision by the Employment Appeal Tribunal that she was not a victim of indirect religious or belief discrimination.

Vincent Cable, Ms Eweida's MP and the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said after the ruling: "We fight on and we fight on to the Supreme Court over this important issue of principle and freedom of expression."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said ahead of the latest case: "We hope that the trust and those representing Ms Chaplin will genuinely seek to resolve this case in her interests without delay.

"Safety concerns about the wearing of crosses can easily be met with breakable chains but freedom of thought, conscience and religion should bind people of all faiths and none together. There are many who seek to create divisions in society and irrational bureaucracy plays into their hands.

"Rights and freedoms have to be seen to protect everyone with an even hand. The Supreme Court has an opportunity to ensure this in the lead case of Nadia Eweida and British Airways. Let's hope it seizes it."