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Court faults airline for making worker remove her crucifix

LONDON — Religious freedom is a right but not an absolute one, Europe’s top court said Tuesday, ruling that British Airways discriminated against a devoutly Christian employee by making her remove her crucifix, but backing a UK charity that fired a marriage counselor who refused to give sex therapy to gay couples.

In judgments welcomed by civil liberties groups but condemned by religious advocates, the European Court of Human Rights said freedom of religion is ‘‘an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies.’’

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‘‘However, where an individual’s religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made,’’ the court said.

The court’s judges, by a five-two margin, backed a claim by a British Airways check-in clerk, Nadia Eweida, who sparked a debate in Britain over religion when she was sent home in November 2006 for refusing to remove a small silver crucifix to comply with rules banning employees from wearing visible religious symbols.

The airline eventually changed its policy and Eweida returned to work, but she pursued a religious discrimination claim, seeking damages and compensation for lost wages.

British courts backed the airline, but Eweida went to the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg, France-based court ruled Tuesday that the airline’s policy ‘‘amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion.’’

Eweida, 60, said when she heard the verdict ‘‘I was jumping for joy and saying ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ ”

British Airways said it had changed its policy on religious symbols in 2007 and was not a party to Eweida’s legal action, which was pursued against the British government.

The British government, which has often bristled at the European court’s rulings, welcomed the judgment in Eweida’s case.

The court ruled against Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was told to remove a crucifix necklace at work. The judges said Chaplin’s employer banned necklaces for health and safety grounds, and so asking her to remove the symbol was not excessive.

The UK judges also struck down claims by Lillian Ladele, a local authority registrar who said her Christian faith prevented her from overseeing same-sex civil partnerships, and marriage counselor Gary McFarlane, who refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples.

In both cases, the court said employers had been entitled to strike a balance between claimants’ rights to manifest their religious beliefs and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination.

Michael Powner, an employment law expert at Charles Russell LLP, said the court’s judgment was ‘‘a sensible one, highlighting the balancing act that has to take place when different convention rights compete in different factual scenarios.’’

But religious groups said the rulings sent the message that sexual orientation trumps religion when it comes to rights.

Dave Landrum, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance, said the court ‘‘has shown a hierarchy of rights now exists in UK law.’’

‘‘If we want to create a society that is diverse and can live with its deepest differences there needs to be a fuller protection for religious beliefs, convictions and actions,’’ he said.

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