European Court of Human Rights to rule on landmark religious discrimination cases this week


Tomorrow four Christians will be seeking to change UK discrimination law through the European Court of Human Rights.

The cases of Ladele and McFarlane v UK, and Eweida and Chaplin v UK will be heard by the Court on 4 September. The cases came about after the claimants' complaints of religious discrimination against their employers were rejected by UK tribunals and courts. The complainants are now alleging that UK law does not do enough to protect the rights of workers to manifest their religious beliefs.

Simon Rice-Birchall, partner at international law firm Eversheds, said: "Since the claims against individual employers were rejected, the battleground has shifted. It is now the law itself that is being challenged and, by extension, the State. This means the implications of the case are wider ranging. A successful outcome for these individuals will mean a change in the law, or at least an adjustment in the way the law has been interpreted, that will apply to all employers across the board.

"If the Court upholds the complaints made by Mrs Eweida and Mrs Chaplin this could, in effect, introduce a duty on employers, where reasonable, to accommodate workers' desires to manifest their religious beliefs. Similar duties exist in the US and Canada, but only where making an adjustment would not cause undue hardship to the employer.

"However, although this would involve a shift in legal focus, it will still be the case that employers only have to make adjustments where it is reasonable to do so. The Human Rights Court is also being asked to grapple with the difficult question of where the line should be drawn between an employee's right to act on their religious convictions, and an employer's discretion as to how it organizes its operations.

"Past cases based on human rights law suggest the claimants will not find it easy to persuade the Court that there was an unjustified infringement of their rights when the option of resigning was available to them if they felt strongly that they must act on their beliefs rather than in accordance with their employer's requirements. But a final ruling will be a few months away yet."