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'No discrimination' against Exeter Christian nurse Shirley Chaplin court rules

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: January 15, 2013

By Emma McFarnon

  • Shirley Chaplin

  • Shirley Chaplin has seen her case rejected by the European Court of Human Rights

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled Exeter Christian nurse Shirley Chaplin did not suffer religious discrimination at work after being told she could no longer wear a cross.

Shirley Chaplin took her case to the Strasbourg court in September last year after being told in 2009, after a 30-year career on the wards at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital, she could no longer wear a crucifix around her neck.

She was told the necklace for the cross breached health and safety guidelines.

An Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled against her in April 2010 because it said Christians “generally did not consider wearing a cross as a requirement of their religion”.

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With support from Christian Concern charity, Ms Chaplin and three other Christians took the case to the ECHR in Strasbourg where judges considered whether the British Government is failing to protect the rights of Christians.

Today the ECHR announced it had rejected her case, as well as that of relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane and registrar Lilian Ladele.

Only Nadia Eweida, a Pentecostal Christian from Twickenham who was sent home by her employer British Airways in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross, “suffered discrimination at work over religious beliefs”, the ECHR ruled.

In these rejected cases the employer was "pursuing a policy of non-discrimination against service users", the ECHR ruled.

Gary McFarlane, a relationships counsellor, was dismissed for gross misconduct for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation after saying he might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple on account of his Christian faith.

Registrar Lilian Ladele was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London, is the fourth Christian involved in the case.

The British government fought the cases, arguing because crosses are not a “requirement” of the Christian faith, employers can forbid the wearing of such symbols and fire workers who insist on doing so.

Judgements can be appealed to the Grand Chamber of the Court within three months.

Keith Denby, Chair of Devon Humanists, told This is Exeter: "None of these issues are about persecution of religion. They are about health and safety and working contracts.

"What is being asked is that special exemptions should be given to religious people.

"Harm to other people should always trump religious privilege. There should be no religious privilege that trumps other people's rights. It looks like the European Court of Human Rights has recognised that."

Speculating as to why Ms Chaplin had seen her case rejected while Nadia Eweida, who also encountered issues relating to the wearing of a cross, won her case, Mr Denby said: "It's probably to do with a degree of risk. It may be in the BA case there were not real health and safety consequences, and the potential harm done to other people is not great.

"With the Shirley Chaplin case, that's to do with wearing something around her neck which is of course a health and safety issue because patients could grasp it."

Mr Denby branded Nadia Eweida's case "ridiculous", but acknowledged: "In the end, if the amount of harm her wearing a cross might do to other people is not great, then fine."

Mr Denby complained "a lot of public money" had been wasted in hearing the cases.

Issuing a statement, British Humanist Association chief executive Andrew Copson said: "The European Court applied exactly the same tests and measures that we have been advocating for years.

"They asked the question 'Will this manifestation of a person’s religion interfere with the rights of others?' In three out of the four cases they found it would and rightly dismissed them.

"These cases have been repeatedly lost in court after court and have wasted an enormous amount of time just as they have generated a huge amount of unnecessarily divisive feeling amongst the public.

"The victim narrative that lies behind them, whipped up by the political Christian lobby groups that organise them and the socially conservative media that report them, has no basis in reality.

"The widespread misreporting of these cases under the guise of 'Christian persecution' when they are anything but has undermined the chance of the public to get a really clear understanding of what the issues engaged by these cases really are.

"What they describe as discrimination and marginalisation of Christians is in fact the proper upholding of human rights and equalities law and principles – principles which protect all people against unfair treatment – and we are pleased that the court has recognised this.

"All reasonable people will agree that there is scope in a secular democracy for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs when that accommodation does not affect the rights and freedoms of others.

"But if believers try to invoke their beliefs as a defence for treating other people badly – denying them a service because they are gay or claiming a right to preach at them in a professional context – the law is right to prevent them.

"It’s not persecution of Christians; it’s the maintenance of a civilised society for all."

Watch Shirley Chaplin talk about her case:

Time line of events leading up to today's ruling:

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  • waynejkc69  |  January 15 2013, 8:45PM

    I am not sure why S.Chaplin cannot wear the necklace under her top or put it in her handbag? Or why a watch hanging of her uniform is not also an item that could be ' grabbed ' by a patient, etc - so thus why ban her cross on H&S grounds. To be honest, the cross has always been a sign of religious belief and through ' custom ' it has become as symbolic as the other religious signs people display when advertising their beliefs for everyones' attention. Personally, I see religion as a ' personal ' experience borne from the writings of men - never women. It is based on the word of individual people who seem unable to produce physical evidence. In fact, I have witnesses people who are ' religious ' act in ways that are uncaring, unfair and unethical all my life. I am at a loss as to why N. Edweida is allowed to advertise her beliefs, and yet S. Chaplin is not. Unless S. Chaplin was doing surgery and the jewelery was likely to fall in to the wound - and this does not appear to be the case - I would say that S. Chaplin has the same right as N. Edweida. So now, what about all the other religious paraphernalia? Can that also be gotten rid off, because, and let's be honest, anyone that wears religious paraphernalia is basically and impliedly discriminating against those that are, let us say, ' waiting for objective and undeniable proof that " God " exists '.

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  • DocTorre  |  January 15 2013, 6:43PM

    We are likely get more of these cases as Christianity declines, and as other faiths get more confident and begin to demand similar privileges and compete for members. Fortunately, the Courts seem to have realised what's happening. Meanwhile, certain members of the government, such as Mr. Pickles, see fear-mongering about persecution of religious groups as a way of gaining votes.

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