Christians' discrimination cases rejected by human rights court

Three British Christians who argued that their beliefs saw them wrongly disciplined by their employers for actions such as refusing to counsel same-sex couples have lost their legal battle at the European court of human rights.

Shirley Chaplin, Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele had their appeals to the Strasbourg court rejected in January as part of the same ruling as that in which Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in attendant, won her fight against being banned from wearing a cross at work.

The three sought to resolve the matter in the court's grand chamber, its final arbiter. However, judges at the court have rejected the request, in effect ending the legal battle.

The success for Eweida, who was awarded €2,000 (£1,600) in compensation after a seven-year struggle with the airline – a decision welcomed by David Cameron among others – partly overshadowed the contrasting judgment in the cases of Chaplin, McFarlane and Ladele.

Chaplin, 57, a geriatrics nurse from Exeter, was moved to an administrative job after she refused to take off a crucifix around her neck. Her case was rejected in January on the grounds that such an instruction was necessary for hygiene and the safety of patients and staff.

Ladele, 52, a local authority registrar, was disciplined by Islington council in London for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, while McFarlane, 51, a Bristol relationship counsellor, was dismissed by the charity Relate for saying he might object to assisting same-sex couples.

The court had ruled that both employers' actions were justified, given their obligations to prevent discrimination against people using their services.

Tuesday's decision was welcomed by the National Secular Society. The group's executive director, Keith Porteous Wood, said: "Fortunately, Europe's highest court has now wisely followed numerous lower courts and rejected the applicants' attempts for religious conscience to trump equality law.

"The UK has the world's most comprehensive equality laws which already include strong protection for religious believers and they would have been fatally compromised, particularly for LGBT people, had the grand chamber overturned any of these judgments.

"We hope that this will now draw a line under the attempts by a small coterie of Christian activists to obtain special privileges for themselves which would invariably come at the expense of other people's rights.

"The principle of equality for all, including for religious believers, is now established and they should stop wasting the time of the courts with these vexatious cases."

At the time of the ruling in January the Christian Legal Centre, which backed the cases, complained that the judgments over Ladele and McFarlane appeared to give sexual rights priority over religious liberty.