An employment tribunal in the United Kingdom ruled Wednesday that the NHS Trust harassed and directly discriminated against a Christian nurse for wearing a cross necklace at work.
Represented by attorneys with the Christian Legal Centre, a legal ministry of the watchdog group Christian Concern, Mary Onuoha, was told by the tribunal that she had been victimized by Croydon Health Services NHS Trust.
As CBN News reported, Onuoha sued her former employer in October, alleging she was intimidated and forced out of her job because she wore a cross necklace.
'Treated Like a Criminal'
Onuoha, 61, had been a member of the hospital's staff for 18 years. She said she wore the cross for 40 years to represent her deep Christian faith.
Six years ago, Onuoha said she was told by her managers to remove the cross or face disciplinary action. She was told it was a health and safety risk and "must not be visible." Yet other clinical staff members at the hospital were permitted to wear jewelry, saris, turbans, and hijabs without being asked to remove them.
Only the cross and its owner were subject to being penalized, she claimed.
The issue escalated in August 2018 when her bosses at the hospital ordered her to remove the cross saying it was a breach of the Trust's Dress Code and Uniform Policy and therefore a health risk to her and to patients.
After her refusal to comply, she was investigated, suspended from clinical duties, and demoted to working as a receptionist.
Until her resignation in August 2020, Onuoha was constantly moved from one administrative role to the next, which she found deeply humiliating. She was also put under pressure and ordered not to tell anyone about what was happening to her. As she was unable to explain to any colleagues why this was happening, it took a lasting emotional toll on her.
"This has always been an attack on my faith," Onuoha said. "My cross has been with me for 40 years. It is part of me, and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm. All I have ever wanted is to be a nurse and to be true to my faith."
"I am a strong woman, but I have been treated like a criminal," she continued."I love my job, but I am not prepared to compromise my faith for it, and neither should other Christian NHS staff in this country."
Humiliating, Hostile, and Threatening Environment
In Wednesday's ruling, the tribunal agreed with Onuoha, ruling the NHS Trust breached Onuoha's human rights and created a "humiliating, hostile and threatening environment" for her.
Answering the Trust's infection risk argument made during a hearing in October, the tribunal judge and two other members ruled, "Applying common sense, it is clear to us that the infection risk posed by a necklace of the sorts the Claimant used to wear when worn by a responsible clinician such as the Claimant, who complied with handwashing protocol, was very low."
The tribunal also said that the rejection of Onuoha's grievance by the NHS Trust was "offensive and intimidating."
"It failed to properly grapple with the complexity of the issues," the three-member panel said. "No real thought seems to have been given to whether it was really appropriate to discipline the Claimant for doing something that in fact, many others in the workforce (including more senior colleagues who worked just as closely with patients) were doing unchallenged. Equally, no real thought was given to the Claimant's point that others were wearing religious apparel in clinical areas and that she should be treated equally to them."
The tribunal also ruled that Croydon Health Services NHS Trust dismissed Onuoha "without reasonable and proper cause" and that the dismissal was unfair and discriminatory.
The panel's judgment also noted "wearing of the cross is not and should not be simply as a fashion accessory" and "stopping Christians from displaying the cross has been a feature of wider persecution campaigns" in some parts of the world. The Tribunal has also acknowledged that "there is biblical teaching imploring Christians to be open about their faith and not to hide it".
The Daily Mail reports a remedy hearing for the case will be scheduled at a later date.
A spokesperson for Croydon Health Services NHS Trust told the Mail, "We would like to apologize to Mrs. Onuoha and thank the Employment Tribunal panel for their careful consideration of this matter."
"It is important that NHS staff feel able to express their beliefs, and that our policies are applied in a consistent, compassionate, and inclusive way," the spokesperson added.
"Since this matter in 2019, our dress code and uniform policy have been updated with the support of the Trust's staff networks and trade union representatives to ensure it is inclusive and sensitive to all religious and cultural needs while maintaining effective infection prevention and control measures and protecting the safety of our patients and staff," the spokesperson explained.
"However, we will carry out a further review of our policy and practices in light of this judgment," the Croydon Health Services NHS Trust spokesperson said.
Responding to the tribunal's decision, Onuoha said she was delighted and relieved that she had finally received justice.
In a statement, Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said it was uplifting to see the employment panel acknowledge the truth.
"We are delighted that the Tribunal has ruled in Mary's favor and delivered justice in this case. Shirley Chaplin, who also fought for the freedom to wear a cross necklace 10 years ago has also now been vindicated," Williams said.
"From the beginning, this case has been about the high-handed attack from the NHS bureaucracy on the right of a devoted and industrious nurse to wear a cross – the worldwide, recognized and cherished symbol of the Christian faith. It is very uplifting to see the Tribunal acknowledge this truth," she continued.
"It was astonishing that an experienced nurse, during a pandemic, was forced to choose between her faith and the profession she loves," Williams noted.
"Mary's whole life has been dedicated to caring for others and her love for Jesus. It has been a privilege to stand with her in this long fight for justice, and we are very pleased with the outcome," she concluded.
The Christian Legal Centre also noted this case develops a wider legal principle that employers cannot discriminate against employees for reasonable manifestations of faith in the workplace.