Religious freedom is a right, but not without limits, Europe’s top human rights court said Tuesday after issuing two religious liberty rulings.
In the first case, the court ruled British Airways (BA) discriminated against a Christian employee by making her remove her crucifix. But in the second case, the court stood behind a U.K. charity that fired a marriage counselor who refused to provide sex therapy to same-sex couples.
In judgments applauded by civil liberties groups but condemned by advocates for religious freedom, the European Court of Human Rights said freedom of religion is “an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies.”
But religious freedom has limits, the court said: “However, where an individual’s religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made.”
The court’s judges, by a five-to-two margin, backed a claim by BA check-in clerk Nadia Eweida, who sparked a national debate in Britain over religion when supervisors sent her home in November 2006 for refusing to remove the small silver cross from around her neck. The company has rules banning employees from wearing visible religious symbols.
BA eventually changed its policy, and Eweida went back to work. But she continued to pursue a claim of religious discrimination, seeking damages and compensation for lost income.
British courts backed BA, but Eweida went to the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg, France-based court ruled Tuesday that the airline’s policy “amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion.” Eweida’s cross was discreet and could not have detracted from her professional appearance, the court said.
“I was jumping for joy and saying ‘Thank you, Jesus,’” Eweida, 60, said when the court announced the verdict. "It's a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith."
But vindication did not come for all.
After deciding Eweida’s case, the judges struck down claims by Lillian Ladele, a local authority registrar who said her Christian faith stopped her from overseeing same-sex civil partnerships, and marriage counselor Gary McFarlane, who refused to offer sex therapy to same-sex couples.
The court's rulings are binding on the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog. The losing claimants can appeal to the court's Grand Chamber, a higher panel of five judges.
In both cases, the court said employers were entitled to strike a balance between claimants’ rights to live out their religious beliefs and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination.
But according to religious groups, the rulings make it clear sexual orientation trumps religion when it comes to rights. Europeans now live within a hierarchy of rights, said Dave Landrum, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance.
"If we want to create a society that is diverse and can live with its deepest differences, there needs to be a fuller protection for religious beliefs, convictions and actions," he said.