A Christian nurse is suing a London NHS trust for unfair dismissal over claims she was forced out of her job for wearing a cross necklace.
Mary Onuoha, a theatre practitioner for 18 years, had worn her cross necklace at Croydon University Hospital for many years without incident until 2015, when she says she was warned of “escalation” by bosses unless she removed or concealed it while on duty.
61-year-old Mary, said she was bullied and pressurised to remove or cover up her necklace while on duty. She said she was ‘treated like a criminal’ and forced out of the job she loved after working there for 18 years, despite other religious staff members being allowed to wear jewellery, saris, turbans and hijabs.
Mrs Onuoha is being supported by the Christian Legal Centre.
She is challenging Croydon Health Services NHS Trust on the grounds of harassment, victimisation, direct and indirect discrimination and constructive unfair dismissal.
Her lawyers argue that the Trust has breached her freedom to manifest her faith under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Equality Act.
The case will bring into question the freedom of Christians to manifest their faith in the workplace, especially in comparison to members of other faiths.
The issue escalated in August 2018 when bosses at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust ordered her to remove the cross saying it was a breach of the Trust’s dress code and uniform policy and therefore a health risk to her and to patients.
Mrs Onuoha will argue that it is NHS management who were breaching the dress code, which states:
“The Trust welcomes the variety of appearances brought by individual styles, choices and religious requirements regarding dress; this will be treated sensitively and will be agreed on an individual basis with the Manager and Trust and must conform to health, safety and security regulations, infection prevention and control and moving and handling guidelines. The wearing of saris, turbans, kirpan, skullcaps, hijabs, kippahs and clerical collars arising from particular cultural/religious norms are seen as part of welcoming diversity.”
Mrs Onuoha’s lawyers will argue that the dress code was applied inconsistently, with other nurses and members of staff frequently wearing various types of jewellery, hijabs, saris, turbans and religious bracelets in wards and theatre without being asked to remove them.
However, in contradiction to this policy, Mrs Onuoha was required at all times to wear several lanyards, (which have no anti-strangle clasps) whilst at the same time the Trust claimed that wearing items from the neck, such as her chain with a cross, posed a ‘risk of injury or infection’.
“This has always been an attack on my faith. 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,” Mary said.
“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.
“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 the theatre. Yet my small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job.”
She added, “All I have ever wanted is to be a nurse and to be true to my faith. I am a strong woman, but I have been treated like a criminal. I love my job, but I am not prepared to compromise my faith for it, and neither should other Christian NHS staff in this country.”
Andrea Williams, CLC chief executive, said Ms Onuoha had been treated appallingly.
“From the beginning this case has been about one or two members of staff being offended by the cross – the worldwide, recognised and cherished symbol of the Christian faith. It is upsetting that an experienced nurse, during a pandemic, has been forced to choose between her faith and the profession she loves. Why do some NHS employers feel that the cross is less worthy of protection or display than other religious attire? How Mary was treated over a sustained period was appalling and cannot go unchallenged. Mary’s whole life has been dedicated to caring for others and her love for Jesus. We are determined to fight for justice,” Ms Williams said.
A spokesperson for Croydon Health Services NHS Trust said, “We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”
(With inputs from Christianity Today; Picture Courtesy: Christian Legal Centre)