An Employment Tribunal has ruled that an NHS Trust harassed a Catholic nurse and directly discriminated against her for wearing a cross necklace at work.
The tribunal found that Nigeria-born Mary Onuoha, 61, a theatre practitioner, was victimised by Croydon Health Services NHS Trust after she formally complained of discrimination she suffered for wearing the symbol around her neck.
On one occasion, an NHS manager even interrupted surgery to harangue the nurse about her small gold cross while the patient was in theatre under general anaesthetic. The manager ignored the fact that the anaesthetist present was wearing ear-rings and a pendant.
At the same time, other members of staff were allowed to wear turbans, saris, hijabs and skull caps without fear of sanctions. Often staff also wear lanyards or bunches of keys around their necks.
The Tribunal said the Trust constructively dismissed Mrs Onuoha “without reasonable and proper cause” and that her sacking, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, was unfair and discriminatory.
Her treatment breached her human rights and created a “humiliating, hostile and threatening environment” for her, the tribunal concluded.
Mrs Onuoha said: “I don’t think I could do my job without the cross. I draw my strength from looking at the cross.
“I am so proud to be a Christian and I am proud to wear my cross. It’s part of my life, its part of me and I am happy to have it on.”
According to the Christian Legal Centre, which supported the nurse, the outcome of the case develops a wider legal principle that employers cannot discriminate against employees for reasonable manifestations of faith in the workplace.
Mrs Onuoha was forced out of her job at Croydon University Hospital in South London in the summer of 2020 following what she described as a two-year campaign waged against her by superiors and NHS bosses.
During the full hearing in October last year, the Trust argued that wearing the cross necklace was an infection risk and that it was nothing to do with her Catholic faith.
But Employment Judge Dyal and the two other members of the tribunal disagreed, saying it was clear to them that such a risk was “very low”.
The Tribunal also stated that the rejection of Mrs Onuoha’s grievance was “offensive and intimidating”.
“It failed to properly grapple with the complexity of the issues,” they 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.”
It questioned why plain rings, neckties, kalava bracelets, hijabs and turbans were permitted but a cross necklace was not.
The Tribunal also made the point that interrupting the surgery while a patient was on the table to chastise Mrs Onuoha over her necklace was “high-handed”.
“She (the manager) literally interrupted surgery in order to address the issue,” the ruling said. “This was to treat the matter as if it was an emergency, but on any view it was not”.
Instead, such conduct created “an offensive, hostile and intimidating environment”.
Furthermore, the Tribunal accepted the expert evidence of theologian Dr Martin Parsons that the necklace was an expression of religious faith because “the cross is a symbol of Christianity” and wearing a cross has many centuries of tradition behind it.
The judgement noted that “stopping Christians from displaying the cross has been a feature of wider persecution campaigns” in some parts of the world. It acknowledged that “there is biblical teaching imploring Christians to be open about their faith and not to hide it”.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “We are delighted that the Tribunal have ruled in Mary’s favour and delivered justice in this case.
“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, recognised and cherished symbol of the Christian faith. It is very uplifting to see the Tribunal acknowledge this truth.
“It was astonishing that an experienced nurse, during a pandemic, was forced to choose between her faith and the profession she loves.
“Any employer will now have to think very carefully before restricting wearing of crosses in the workplace. You can only do that on specific and cogent health and safety grounds. It is not enough to apply general labels such as ‘infection risk’ or ‘health and safety’.”
She added: “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.”
Mrs Onuoha moved to the UK in 1988 and wore her cross at work for 19 years without complaints or intimidation.
But from 2015 a succession of line managers asked Mrs Onuoha to either remove her cross, conceal it, or face “escalation”. Each time Mrs Onuoha politely declined the requests, explaining that her necklace is a symbol of her deeply held Christian faith and that she had worn it at work for many years.
In November 2018, Mrs Onuoha received a letter telling her she was demoted to reception duties for her continued refusal to comply with dress code and that an internal investigation would ensue.
Until she took stress leave in June 2020, Mrs Onuoha was constantly moved from one administrative role to the next. She resigned in August 2020.
A spokesperson for Croydon Health Services NHS Trust said: “We would like to apologise 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.
“Since this matter in 2019, our dress code and uniform policy has 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.
“However, we will carry out a further review of our policy and practices in light of this judgment.”
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