A Christian nurse is suing a London NHS Trust for discrimination because she claims that administrators bullied her into removing or covering up her cross necklace.
61-year-old Mary Onuoha, an operating theatre specialist at Croydon University Hospital, says she was repeatedly bullied and pressurised to remove or cover up her necklace while on duty.
Mary Onuoha says she was 'treated like a criminal' and forced out of the job she loved after working there for 18 years.
Mrs Onuoha, who is being supprted by the Christian Legal Centre, is challenging Croydon Health Services NHS Trust on the grounds of harassment, victimisation, direct and indirect discrimination and constructive unfair dismissal.
Her lawyers argue that the Trust has breached her freedom to manifest her faith under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Equality Act.
The case will bring into question the freedom of Christians to manifest their faith in the workplace, especially in comparison to members of other faiths.
The issue escalated in August 2018 when bosses at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust 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.
Mrs Onuoha will argue that it is NHS management who were breaching the dress code, which states:
"The Trust welcomes the variety of appearances brought by individual styles, choices and religious requirements regarding dress; this will be treated sensitively and will be agreed on an individual basis with the Manager and Trust and must conform to health, safety and security regulations, infection prevention and control and moving and handling guidelines. The wearing of saris, turbans, kirpan, skullcaps, hijabs, kippahs and clerical collars arising from particular cultural / religious norms are seen as part of welcoming diversity."
Mrs Onuoha’s lawyers will argue that the dress code was applied inconsistently, with other nurses and members of staff frequently wearing various types of jewellery, hijabs, saris, turbans and religious bracelets in wards and theatre without being asked to remove them.
However, in contradiction to this policy, Mrs Onuoha was required at all times to wear several lanyards, (which have no anti-strangle clasps) whilst at the same time the Trust claimed that wearing items from the neck, such as her chain with a cross, posed a ‘risk of injury or infection’ (see image).
Roger Kiska, from the Christian Legal Center told Premier:
"The position of the Christian Legal Centre is that this is clearly animus towards the cross. It's not a health and safety issue. She wears lanyards in the theatre all the time that can be pulled off or used to choke. So, we think this is clearly a breach of her religious freedom and the right to manifest her faith through the wearing of a cross."
"One of the things that the European Court has said in a similar British Airways case is that it's really not a manifestation of what a doctrinal belief might be for a given denomination, but it's a personal belief. And if it's serious and cogent and if Mary has her own deeply held reasons for wanting to wear the cross as a manifestation of her faith, the law protects that. So, if it's really a health and safety issue, they're giving mixed messages here, it seems that they're really just wanting to censor the message of the cross."
A spokesperson for the Croydon Health Services NHS Trust said: “We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”