NHS apologizes for discriminating against Christian nurse over cross necklace

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Mary Onuoha said bosses at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust intimidated her into trying to get her to have her cross removed and threatened to take disciplinary action.

However, the 61-year-old senior nurse told an employment tribunal that other staff were allowed to wear jewelry and similar religious items without being challenged.

The court ruled in her favor and said she was fired in disguise in 2020.

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Croydon Health Services NHS Trust has apologized to nurse Mary Onuoha for discriminating against her for wearing a cross.

After the decision, Ms. Onuoha said, “It has always been an attack on my faith. My cross has been with me for 40 years. It’s part of me and part of my faith, and it never hurt anyone.

“In this hospital, there are staff members who go to the mosque four times a day and no one tells them anything. Hindus wear red bracelets on their wrists and Muslim women wear the hijab in the theater.

“Yet my little 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.

Ms Onuoha was supported by the Christian Legal Center (CLC), which called the outcome a “landmark decision”.

He says the outcome of the case develops a broader legal principle that employers cannot discriminate against employees for reasonable expressions of faith in the workplace.

The Tribunal declared that the dismissal of a grievance filed by her was “offensive and intimidating”.

The court added: “It failed to properly tackle the complexity of the issues. No real thought seems to have been given as to whether it was really appropriate to discipline the Claimant for doing something that many other members of the workforce (including more experienced colleagues who worked everything. also closely with patients) did without being challenged. Likewise, no real consideration was given to the Claimant’s argument that others wore religious clothing in clinical areas and that she should be treated on an equal basis with them.

The Tribunal also found that Croydon Health Services NHS Trust implicitly terminated Ms Onuoha “without reasonable and valid reason” and that the termination was unfair and discriminatory.

He ruled that the dress code policy was “applied in an arbitrary and disproportionate manner” and that there was “no convincing explanation” for why plain rings, ties, kalava bracelets, hijabs and turbans were allowed, but a crossed collar was not. “

One of the most concerning aspects of Ms Onuoha’s case, the CLC said, was how she said she was harassed for wearing the cross necklace by a senior executive while caring for a patient under general anesthesia in the operating room.

On August 21, 2018, she was responsible for a team working in the operating room taking care of a patient under general anesthesia. While the patient was on the operating table, Ms. Onuoha’s manager entered the room and asked her to immediately remove or hide her cross. At the same time, during the same operation, the blue pendant and earrings worn by the anesthesiologist were completely ignored.

In a letter to Ms Onuoha on August 9, 2018, her supervisor and senior clinical practitioner wrote: “I offered you a compromise to use a longer chain so that your necklace was out of sight, but you refused. . Please note that the collar is not only a violation of dress code policy, but also a risk to the health and safety of patients and yourself. allowing you to wear your collar, but it may not be visible while you are in clinical service. This is both about following infection control guidelines and protecting yourself from possible injury if you are faced with angry patients or caregivers.

The following week, Ms Onuoha’s supervisor was visibly angry when she saw that she was still carrying the cross and said she would ensure that she was disciplined.

In November 2018, she was demoted to reception functions. Until her resignation in August 2020, she had constantly moved from one administrative position to another, which she said was deeply humiliating.

She was also ordered not to tell anyone about what was happening to her. As she couldn’t explain to any of her colleagues why this was happening, she said it had a lasting emotional impact on her.

Andrea Williams, Executive Director of the Christian Legal Center, said: “We are delighted that the Tribunal has ruled in Mary’s favor and delivered justice in this case. Shirley Chaplin, who also fought for the freedom to wear a crossover collar 10 years ago, has also been vindicated. “

A spokesperson for Croydon Health Services NHS Trust has issued an unconditional apology to Ms Onuoha.

“We would like to apologize to Ms. Onuoha and thank the labor tribunal panel for their careful consideration of this case.

“It is important that NHS staff feel able to express their beliefs and that our policies are applied in a consistent, compassionate and inclusive manner.

“Since this case in 2019, our dress code and uniform policy has been updated with the support of networks of Trust staff and union representatives to ensure it is inclusive and responsive to all religious needs. and cultural, while maintaining effective infection prevention and control measures. and protect the safety of our patients and staff. However, we will be re-examining our policy and practices in light of this judgment. “

The Tribunal has not yet made a decision on the remedy to be offered to Ms. Onuoha.

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