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NHS Nurse wins discrimination case after being told to remove cross necklace

Makbool Javaid, Partner - Simons Muirhead & Burton

In Mrs Onuoha v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust Mrs Onuoha is a devout Catholic. One of her religious beliefs is that it is important to manifest her faith by wearing a cross. She has, since a young age done this by wearing a necklace with a cross pendant on it. Mrs Onuoha spent around 70% of her duties in theatre. Her Cross-Necklace was visible when she was wearing scrubs. However, it was not visible when she was working as scrubbed in nurse. It was covered by the neck to wrist surgical covering.

She had been a staff member for 18 years and had worn the piece of jewellery for 40 years but from 2015, she claims a succession of managers told her to remove the item from around her neck or the matter would face ‘escalation.’ She claims patient safety was risked in an operating theatre to discipline her and her head of department even said he would have to call security if she wore it in a clinical area.

Mrs Onuoha was told her small gold cross was a health and safety risk and ‘must not be visible’. However, she says other clinical staff members at Croydon University Hospital in South London were permitted to wear jewellery, saris, turbans, and hijabs and only the cross was subject to specific sanction.

For her continued refusals, the devout Christian was investigated, suspended from clinical duties and demoted to working as a receptionist, which she found deeply humiliating, she claims. She says she was forced off work with stress in June 2020 and believed she faced no alternative but to resign later that year.

The tribunal found the trust had constructively dismissed Mrs Onuoha. Employment judge Dyal and two lay members, Mrs Foster-Norman and Ms Forecast, ruled that: “Applying common sense, it is clear to us that the infection risk posed by a necklace of the sorts the claimant used to wear, when worn by a responsible clinician such as the claimant, who complied with handwashing protocol, was very low.”

They said the trust had failed to properly deal with Mrs Onuoha’s grievances when she refused to remove the cross on religious grounds.

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