The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK had failed to protect Nadia Eweida’s freedom to manifest her faith in the workplace.
But it rejected a similar legal challenge from Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, ruling that the hospital where she worked should be able to refuse permission to wear a cross on “health and safety” grounds.
Both women lost employment tribunal cases in Britain after being refused the right to wear a cross as a symbol of their faith under their employers’ uniform policy.
And in a hearing in Strasbourg last year the UK Government argued that this was not a breach of their human rights and wearing a cross is not an essential tenet of Christianity.
But in its judgment the court said that manifesting religion is a “fundamental right”.
It added: “[This is because] a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity; but also because of the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others.”
The ruling in favour of Mrs Eweida represents a humiliation for David Cameron who promised to change the law to enshrine workers’ right to wear the cross – even as lawyers for his Government were actively fighting the women in court.
It led to accusations of hypocrisy.
But, in a decision which could have even wider long-term implications, the court also rejected parallel challenges brought by two other Christians who lost their jobs for taking a stand on what they saw as a matter of conscience.
Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor, and Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar, both resisted performing tasks at work they believed would amount to condoning homosexuality.
Although UK equality law explicitly forbids denying goods or services to people on grounds of sexuality, the pair argued that their stance made them conscientious objectors.
Crucially Miss Ladele’s lawyers argued that employers should be required to make ‘reasonable accommodation’ for minority beliefs.
Both lost their cases in what defenders said amounted to “an assault on conscientious objection”.
Miss Eweida, a British Airways employee, from Twickenham, south-west London, received widespread publicity when she was sent home in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross or hide it from view.
An employment tribunal ruled the Coptic Christian, originally from Egypt, did not suffer religious discrimination.
BA later changed its uniform policy to allow all symbols of faith, including crosses.
The court ruled: “In these circumstances where there is no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of others, the domestic authorities failed sufficiently to protect the first applicant’s right to manifest her religion, in breach of the positive obligation under Article 9.”
Mrs Chaplin, from Exeter, had worn her confirmation cross on a small chain around her neck, for almost thirty years in nursing until she was told to remove when new uniforms were introduced.
She argued that allowances were made for the religious dress of others but the hospital then claimed it was a “health and safety” issue.
The court found: “The reason for asking her to remove the cross, namely the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward, was inherently of a greater magnitude than that which applied in respect of Ms Eweida. Moreover, this is a field where the domestic authorities must be allowed a wide margin of appreciation. The hospital managers were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety than a court, particularly an international court which has heard no direct evidence.”