In what has been described as a “landmark ruling,” an employment tribunal in the United Kingdom ruled that the National Health Service (NHS) Trust unlawfully “harassed and directly discriminated against a Christian nurse for wearing a cross necklace at work.”
Represented by the Christian Legal Centre, Mary Onuoha became the target of an aggressive harassment campaign by her supervisors at the Croydon Health Services NHS Trust for refusing to remove a gold cross necklace she wears daily. Other employees who outwardly wore religious garb unrelated to the Christian faith, like a hijab or turban, were not subjected to harassment and their expressions of faith were welcomed as a sign of diversity.
Due to the persecution she experienced, and her demotion to an administrative job for refusing to compromise her Christian faith and remove her cross, Onuoha left the job in June 2020.
On Jan. 5, the court sided with Onuoha, ruling in part that: “Applying common sense, it is clear to us that the infection risk posed by a necklace of the sorts the Claimant used to wear, when worn by a responsible clinician such as the Claimant, who complied with handwashing protocol is very low.”
In response to the NHS’ aggressive campaign against Onuoha, the court ruled that their behavior was “offensive and intimidating. It failed to properly grapple with the complexity of the issues. 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.”
The targeted harassment of Onuoha was extreme at times, and even put patients’ lives at risk.
On at least one occasion, Onuoha’s supervisors were so frustrated with her cross that they walked into an operating theater while a patient was under general anesthesia to demand that the Christian nurse either remove her cross or leave the room in order to put on additional scrubs and cover up the cross.
Her lawyers argue that this was a clear violation of patient safety, and infringed on Onuoha’s right to freely express her Christian faith.
Originally from Nigeria, Onuoha wanted to become a nurse because one of her brothers didn’t receive proper medical care and died of the measles. She came to the U.K. in 1988 and worked for 19 years at Croydon University Hospital.
“This has always been an attack on my faith,” she 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. Patients often say to me: ‘I really like your cross,’ they always respond to it in a positive way and that gives me joy and makes me feel happy. I am proud to wear it as I know God loves me so much and went through this pain for me.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Legal Centre, said, “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.”
Photo: Courtesy of Christian Concern