Published on Jan 24, 2013 SDAMatt2a
Nadia Eweida is in celebratory mode. She wears a bright top embellished with pearls, and her eyes are sparkling. Around her neck is a discreet silver cross, no larger than a five-pence piece, which quietly proclaims her faith.
This week she won her six-year crusade against her employer British Airways to wear the cross while working as a passenger services’ agent at Heathrow.
After losing a string of hearings in Britain, she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, and on Tuesday its judges found in her favour.
‘On the day of judgement there was a meeting at our church and we had a glass of bubbly and I said: “Thank you God!” I think I went a bit over the top actually,’ she says, half-apologetically.
‘I jumped around and thanked Jesus as well. I suddenly felt a lot lighter. It was as if a burden had been lifted.You know the Maltesers’ advert?’ (The one in an airport, where the ground staff start skipping.)
‘Well I felt a bit like that. The world had become brighter. It was wonderful! God had answered my prayers. I’d been vindicated.’
Nadia, 61, later got a tweet from David Cameron saying he was ‘delighted the principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld’.
She not only secured a personal triumph but a victory for all Christians in Europe. ‘They will feel they can wear their crosses without recrimination or victimisation,’ she says.
‘It will encourage them to stand up and be counted, not to be afraid. It shows those of faith, and those of no religion for that matter, that Christianity has substance and life.’
There is, however, a proviso to the ruling: employees may not wear their crosses if employers can show good reason for prohibiting them, which is why the case of nurse Shirley Chaplin — who went to same court — wasn’t upheld.
The judges ruled her NHS bosses were right to move her to an administrative job. This was because the crucifix could pose health and safety problems on the wards, such as if a patient tugged it or it came into contact with open wounds.
But Nadia says: ‘There are Catholic nuns who are nurses and they wear large crucifixes. I’m not aware that they’ve ever been strangled by them or the crosses are any more likely to harbour bacteria than hands or clothes. I find it incomprehensible.’
Two more claims from Christians, who were sacked because of gay-rights disputes, were also rejected. Lillian Ladele, a registrar with London’s Islington Council, had declined to conduct civil-partnership ceremonies. Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, had refused to give sex advice to gay couples.
The court ruled that neither had suffered unfair discrimination because of their religious beliefs.
‘Their cases are very different from mine so I am not equipped to comment,’ says Nadia. Her own dispute dates back to May 2006 and the day after she’d been on a diversity training course at work.
‘We discussed bullying, harassment and all kinds of scenarios involving people from different religions and cultures. The consensus was that we should, quite rightly, embrace multiculturalism and diversity of belief.’
But she says no one mentioned Christianity. Nadia pointed this out politely to the organiser, who said she had no control over the content of the study course.
Nadia is not a strident evangelist — far from it. Her demeanour is gentle, her voice quiet. But the next day, when she was told sharply by the duty manager that she couldn’t wear her cross, she got angry.
She’d worn it every day since starting at BA in 1999. Her roles included operating the check-in desk, meeting and boarding flights and supervising unaccompanied minors — and it had never elicited comment from staff or passengers.
She had also worked for other airlines previously, including Gulf Air, Kuwait Airlines, Egypt Air, Ghana Airways and Malaysian Airlines. None of them had objected to her cross.