ECHR fails to protect Christian’s right to freedom of religious expression
What’s at Stake
- The freedom of religious expression
- The right to manifest one’s faith in the workplace
- The right of conscience to wear Christian symbols
Shirley Chaplin had worn a cross as a symbol of her Christian faith ever since she was sixteen. And apart from a short time during an operation, she had never taken it off. During most of that period, she worked as a nurse at her local government-run hospital.
But in 2009, changes to the staff uniform requirements at the hospital demanded that she remove her cross for work. Shirley was surprised by the sudden changes and, because she had worn her cross for such a long time, couldn’t contemplate taking it off. “I have worn my cross for 38 years and it has never harmed anybody,” she said. “If I am forced to hide it, I feel I am denying my Christian convictions. I feel torn between my faith and my job.”
To make matters worse for Shirley, her colleagues who followed other religions were allowed to wear their religious items, including very prominent headscarves. Over the course of several months she attempted to find a solution by making a number of reasonable suggestions, but the hospital was unwilling to change its position. With representation from religious liberty barrister Paul Diamond, she decided to take the matter to court.
In April 2010, an Employment Tribunal decided that the hospital could continue its inconsistent treatment. Shirley was still prevented from wearing her cross visibly, while followers of other religions were allowed to display their religious items.
Shirley then took her case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Paul Coleman, senior legal counsel for ADF International, formed part of Nurse Chaplin’s legal team for the court hearing. ADF International was also given permission to present written legal arguments to the court.
In January 2013, the ECHR reached a disappointing decision. It found that Chaplin’s right to freedom of religion had not been violated, because the hospital’s decision had been based on “health and safety” grounds, even though the exact health and safety risk had never been established in court.
Paul Coleman commented: “Sadly, even though the hospital’s ‘health and safety’ claims were completely unsupported by any evidence during the hearing in the UK, the European Court of Human Rights still decided that Nurse Chaplin’s religious freedom could be overridden on this basis.”
Our Role in the Case
ADF International provided funding for Nurse Chaplin’s case before the European Court of Human Rights and Paul Coleman assisted lead counsel, Paul Diamond, during the oral hearings. ADF International was also given permission to present written legal submissions to the European Court of Human Rights.