STRASBOURG Europe's top human rights court ruled on Tuesday that equality laws and safety concerns trumped religious freedom in three cases where British Christians were sacked or sanctioned for expressing their beliefs at work.
The European Court of Human Rights ECHR.L ruled employers did not violate the religious rights of a registrar who refused to officiate for civil partnerships of same-sex couples and a counsellor deemed unwilling to offer sex therapy for gays.
It also turned down an appeal by a nurse whose hospital barred her from wearing a cross around her neck. In the fourth case in the verdict, a British Airways clerk suspended for wearing a cross won her appeal and was awarded damages.
"The principle of non-discrimination against gay people has been upheld," said Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society which opposed all the appeals.
"The rights of gay people to fair and equal treatment would have been kicked back by decades" if the two appeals concerning same-sex partnership had been upheld, he said.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, whose Christian Legal Centre in London represented two of the losing plaintiffs, said she would make a final appeal to the ECHR Grand Chamber.
She said the ruling let the government decide who abided by "an equality policy that promotes a same-sex agenda and asks you to believe in it, to comply with it and promote it."
If upheld, the court's ruling would mean European companies must be careful to balance employees' rights to express their religious beliefs on the job against equality laws meant to end discrimination, especially against gays.
The trend toward stronger equality laws to prevent discrimination against homosexuals has created problems for religious groups that consider same-sex relations to be sinful.
The Catholic Church has closed adoption services in two U.S. states because it refused to give children to same-sex couples and a British Catholic adoption agency recently lost a legal battle to win an exemption from equality laws there.
British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the court on Twitter for upholding one case: "Delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld - people shouldn't suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs."
He plans to submit a bill to allow faith symbols at work.
In the case of the British Airways (ICAG.L) employee Nadia Eweida, the ECHR found her religious rights took precedence over BA's "wish to project a certain corporate image."
She was suspended in 2006, when BA's dress code allowed Sikh turbans and Muslim headscarves, and returned to work 17 months later after Christian and Jewish symbols were added to the list.
"I am very pleased that Christian religious rights have been vindicated both in the United Kingdom and in Europe," she told Reuters, adding she was disappointed for the other plaintiffs.
But in another case, the ECHR agreed with hospital officials that nurse Shirley Chaplin's cross could cause injury to her if a patient pulled it or it came into contact with an open wound.
It said "the protection of health and safety in a hospital ward" was "inherently more important" than her wish to manifest her faith and the hospital was the best judge of each case.
GAY RIGHTS VS FAITH TENETS
The court found the London borough of Islington had the right to discipline registrar Lillian Ladele in 2007 for refusing to perform ceremonies for gay civil unions, which she said her faith did not approve of.
The ECHR also rejected the appeal of relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane, who was dismissed in 2008 because his employers concluded his Christian beliefs would stand in the way of providing sex therapy to homosexual couples.
The ECHR has in the past given considerable leeway to member states to decide issues of religion in the public sphere.
It has allowed a French school to require Muslim students to remove headscarves for sports classes but also let Italian state schools leave crucifixes hanging in classrooms.
Paul Lambdin, an employment law expert with the British firm Stevens and Bolton LLP, said the effect of the rejected appeals would be that "others with similar religious convictions may be lawfully excluded from certain jobs."
Gregor Puppinck of the European Centre for Law and Justice, which supported the appeals, said the three rulings amounted to a "monopolistic imposition of postmodern ideology over individual consciences and religious beliefs." (Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by)