Mary Onuoha says she faced discrimination and years of harassment for wearing a cross necklace at work. As a Christian, Onuoha refused to remove the necklace or hide it from view while working as a nurse. She then sued the hospital after losing her job, and now the courts have finally weighed in.
Standing Up for Her Faith
Onuoha grew up in Nigeria before immigrating to the United Kingdom in 1988. She was a nurse at Croydon University Hospital for nearly 20 years before leaving in June 2020.
In her lawsuit against the Croydon Health Services NHS Trust, she claims that her employers told her to stop wearing her cross necklace because it was “a health and safety risk.” Officials told her that the cross violated the Trust’s Dress Code and Uniform Policy.
After she refused to remove the necklace during her shift, the hospital made her a counteroffer: she could wear the necklace at work, but she had to use a longer chain to keep the cross out of sight.
But Onuoha again refused to hide her necklace. She believes the controversy “has always been an attack on my faith.”
“My cross has been with me for 40 years,” Onuoha said. “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.”
For Onuoha, her faith and nursing have always gone hand in hand.
“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,” she said.
In last week’s ruling, the tribunal court dismissed the hospital’s claim that the necklace posed a health and safety risk. The ruling highlighted how other employees are allowed to hear hijabs and jewelry to work without endangering patients.
“There is no evidence to show that the infection risk they posed was lower than the Cross-Necklace,” the tribunal said. “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.”
Onuoha also said one of her supervisors even brought up the issue while she was caring for a patient under anesthetic in the operating room.
The tribunal called the move “high-handed. She literally interrupted surgery in order to address the issue. This was to treat the matter as if it was an emergency, but on any view it was not,” and that the manager’s conduct created “an offensive, hostile and intimidating environment.”
The tribunal ruled in Onuoha’s favor. Her financial compensation will be decided at a later hearing.
Onuoha was represented by the Christian Legal Centre.
“We are delighted that the Tribunal have ruled in Mary’s favor and delivered justice in this case,” said Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre. “It was astonishing that an experienced nurse, during a pandemic, was forced to choose between her faith and the profession she loves.”
“Any employer will now have to think very carefully before restricting wearing of crosses in the workplace. You can only do that on specific and cogent health and safety grounds. It is not enough to apply general labels such as ‘infection risk’ or ‘health and safety,’” Williams added.