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A Christian nurse in the U.K. saw a victory for religious freedom in the workplace last week when The Employment Tribunal ruled in her favor after she was forced to resign from her position at a London hospital following years of harassment and being “treated like a criminal” over a necklace with a cross pendant that she wore daily.
Mary Onuoha filed a suit against Croydon Health Services NHS Trust following her June 2020 resignation from her job as a nurse at the hospital. In the suit, Onuoha described being targeted and harassed for years for donning a small cross necklace that she was told posed “a health and safety risk.”
The Christian nurse received the necklace as a present at her baptism during her childhood in Nigeria. She has worn it everyday since.
(Source: Christian Concern)
“Every time I look at it, I think of Jesus, His love, how much He loved me, and the need for me to love him back,” she told the Daily Mail.
Onuoha reported being asked to remove her necklace several times over the course of her 19 year career with the hospital, where she worked as a theatre practitioner, a nurse who works primarily in the operating room and provides pre- and post-operative care.
While her scrubs occasionally concealed the necklace, it was often visible. The first time Onuoha was asked to remove the necklace was in 2014 by an operating room manager, who said the pendant “harboured bacteria.” Onuoha promptly refused.
“I refused and said words to the effect of ‘What about hijabs, turbans and kalava bracelets?’ She said she would get back to me but did not do so,” the Christian nurse stated, pointing to the exceptions for other religious garbs.
In 2015, Onuoha was again pressed about the jewelry when she was asked to wear a longer chain to hide the cross under her uniform.
“I asked why I should hide my faith while others were allowed to show their own. She did not take the matter any further,” Onuoha reported.
“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,” the Christian nurse said in a statement.
Several other instances of managers asking Onuoha to remove her cross or tuck it under her clothing occurred over the years, once in the middle of surgery, with threats of “escalation” if she did not comply.
Eventually, Onuoha was moved to clerical duties and reported being subjected to bullying from staff that left her unable to work.
“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 theatre. Yet my small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job,” the Christian nurse told the Daily Mail.
Onuoha left her position at the hospital because of the bullying and stress she was subjected to daily. Her suit against her former employer alleged harassment, victimization, direct and indirect discrimination, and constructive and unfair dismissal.
In its ruling, the tribunal dismissed the hospital’s claim of health concerns over the necklace, pointing to the exceptions made for other religious garb.
“There is no evidence to show that the infection risk they posed was lower than the Cross-Necklace. There is no cogent explanation as to why these items are permitted but a fine necklace with a small pendant of religious devotional significance is not,” the tribunal said.
Employment judge Daniel Dyal said that the trust created a “humiliating, hostile and threatening environment” and responses to Onuoha’s complaints were “offensive and intimidating.”
The Christian Legal Center who represented Onuoha released the following statement, praising the victory for religious freedom in the workplace:
“We are delighted that the Tribunal have ruled in Mary’s favor and delivered justice in this case. From the beginning this case has been about the high-handed attack from the NHS bureaucracy on the right of a devoted and industrious nurse to wear a cross — the worldwide, recognized and cherished symbol of the Christian faith. It is very uplifting to see the Tribunal acknowledge this truth,” Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre stated.
“From a young age I naturally always wanted to care for people – it was in my blood. 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,” the Christian nurse told the Daily Mail.
Onuoha has since found a new job, but following her victory in the courts, she will receive financial compensation to be determined at a later hearing.
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