Nurse ‘victimised’ for wearing cross at work was unfairly dismissed, tribunal rules

A nurse who claimed she was victimised for wearing a necklace with a Christian cross at work has won a case for unfair dismissal.

Mary Onuoha, a theatre practitioner at Croydon university hospital, Surrey, was discriminated against and harassed, an employment tribunal ruled on Wednesday.

Onuoha, a Catholic, wore a necklace with a small cross pendant both in and out of work as a symbol of her religious devotion.

However, Croydon Health Services NHS Trust’s uniform policy prohibited the wearing of necklaces in clinical areas on the basis that they could be a health and safety risk.

Onuoha was asked to remove her necklace in 2014, 13 years after she began working at the hospital. She refused for religious reasons, and refused again when the issue was raised again in 2015 and 2016.

Further efforts by the trust to get Onuoha to remove the necklace, or wear it inside her uniform, failed. She was suspended from clinical duties and demoted to working as a receptionist which she said left her feeling humiliated. She resigned in 2020 and claimed constructive and unfair dismissal.

She argued that the trust had breached her right to religion under article 9 of the European convention on human rights, and that her treatment was religious discrimination, harassment and victimisation under the 2010 Equality Act.

Onuoha said: “My cross has been with me for 40 years. It is part of me, and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm.

“At this hospital there are members of staff who go to a mosque four times a day and no one says anything to them. Hindus wear red bracelets on their wrists and female Muslims wear hijabs in theatre.

“Yet my small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job. I am a strong woman but I have been treated like a criminal.”

According to the tribunal’s ruling, the wearing of jewellery, including necklaces, was “rife” among the trust’s workforce and was “widely tolerated” by management.

The trust allowed employees to wear other items of religious apparel such as headscarves, turbans and kalava bracelets. “There was no proper explanation as to why those items were permitted but a cross-necklace was not,” the ruling said.

The trust had “directly discriminated against and harassed” Onuoha, and her “dismissal had been both discriminatory and unfair”.

However, the suggestion that the trust had deliberately targeted the cross necklace as a symbol of the Christian faith or that the trust had acted out of “any kind of prejudice towards the Christian faith” was rejected by a majority of the tribunal.

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre which supported Onuoha’s case, said: “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.

“Any employer will now have to think very carefully before restricting wearing of crosses in the workplace.”