Nurse told to stop wearing cross necklace was discriminated against, tribunal hears

Undated handout photo issued by Christian Concern of Mary Onuoha, a tribunal has found that the nurse was discriminated against after she was told to stop wearing a cross necklace in work. Issue date: Wednesday January 5, 2022.
Mary Onuoha Credit: Christian Concern

A tribunal has found that a nurse was discriminated against after she was told to stop wearing a cross necklace in work.

Croydon Health Services NHS Trust was found to have discriminated against and harassed Mary Onuoha after she refused to remove the necklace in 2018.

While the tribunal found that Ms Onuoha had been discriminated against, a majority of the tribunal’s members rejected the suggestion that this discrimination had been as a result of any prejudice by the trust against the Christian faith.

Instead it held that her rights had been breached because other members of staff were allowed to wear necklaces during the same period, and that other items of religious wear had also been tolerated – including headscarves, turbans, and Kalava bracelets.

“There was no proper explanation as to why those items were permitted but a cross necklace was not,” the tribunal’s judgment said.

Mary Onuoha's case was then dealt with by an employment tribunal in south London Credit: Christian Concern

Ms Onuoha wore a cross for 13 years while working as a nurse in the surgical theatre at Croydon University Hospital in south London before she was first asked to remove it in 2014.

However, she refused on religious grounds.

She was then asked to remove the necklace twice again in 2015 and 2016 – with no further follow-up on each occasion.

The matter came to a head after Croydon NHS Trust was criticised in a 2017 Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection for failing to enforce its dress code and uniform policy – which banned the wearing of necklaces in clinical areas.

The trust then told Ms Onuoha that she could either stop wearing the cross or wear it under her top, but she refused to compromise and the matter was escalated into both disciplinary and grievance procedures.

The nurse was redeployed to non-clinical duties, and after the trust indicated that it was set to commence a second set of disciplinary proceedings she resigned claiming constructive dismissal.

The matter was then dealt with by an employment tribunal in south London.

The tribunal found that Ms Onuoha was entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal as the trust’s conduct amounted to a repudiatory breach of her contract.

It added that the dismissal “had been both discriminatory and unfair”.

In an interview with Christian Concern prior to the judgment, Ms Onuoha said there was no evidence that her cross necklace had caused an infection.

“There is no evidence that wearing my cross has ever caused any infection,” she said.

“For instance, many people wear eye-glasses, people wear lanyards, ear-rings are accepted, a wedding ring is accepted, (people wear) passes and a bunch of keys – so a cross doesn’t make any difference.”

She said she had worn the cross since her Catholic confirmation ceremony.

“It’s part of my life, it’s part of me,” she added.

Croydon Health Services NHS Trust has been contacted for comment.