'I refused to hide my faith, now let the judges decide'
FORMER city nurse Shirley Chaplin is still "devastated" over how her 30 year nursing career came to an end two years ago.
Now the 57-year-old from Kenn has spoken out about being one of four British Christians who took their landmark case against religious discrimination to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg last week.
After a 30-year career on the wards at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital, the ward sister was told she could no longer wear a crucifix around her neck as it breached health and safety guidelines.
In 2009 the Royal Devon & Exeter Foundation NHS Trust said her crucifix necklace breached the guidelines when worn with the new V-neck style tunics because of the "small risk" of patients grabbing it.
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The trust said she could have put the cross under her uniform, but Mrs Chaplin felt that she was being asked to hide her faith in a way that was disrespectful.
She said she had worn the cross on the wards for 30 years without incident.
After she refused to put the cross under her uniform, she was taken off frontline duties and given a desk job.
In April 2010, an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled against her because it said Christians "generally did not consider wearing a cross as a requirement of their religion".
With support from Christian Concern charity, Shirley and three other Christians took the case to the Strasbourg court where judges will consider whether the British Government is failing to protect the rights of Christians.
"I was totally devastated," she said. "I couldn't understand what was going on. I'm still really hurt by it.
"I trained at the RD&E, I completed lots of courses so had lots of skills, trained others, was extremely committed to the job and worked hard all my life, so to find that 30 years of experience came down to one thing, and my career was written off, was devastating.
"I felt I was being singled out, because at first no one else was asked to remove their jewellery," she added.
"When I asked why, I was told they would be asked too."
When Shirley refused to take her cross off, after a series of meetings, she was removed from patient care duties and given an administrative role.
The RD&E Foundation NHS Trust previously said Mrs Chaplin was offered several alternative ways to wear her cross which she chose not to accept.
"It made no sense," she continued. "When I made checks I found out that there were no records of any incidents involving staff members being harmed because of the jewellery they were wearing. I had worn it for 30 years. There was no logic to it.
"The cross is about my commitment to my faith. What I found really humiliating was their solution which was for me to hide it. But this felt like I should be ashamed of my faith.
"There were other staff members who were permitted to wear items showing allegiance to their faith, such as Muslim doctors wearing headscarfs, so all I wanted to some equality."
Shirley said fellow Christian staff members chose to remove their crosses.
The administrative role Shirley was given was a six-month pilot role, so when it came to an end she decided to take early retirement.
In addition to Shirley's case the other cases involved British Airways check-in clerk Nadia Eweida, relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane and registrar Lilian Ladele.
Ms Eweida, a Pentecostal Christian, was sent home from work in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross.
Mr McFarlane, a Bristol counsellor, was sacked for refusing to give relationship advice to gay people and Ms Ladele was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London.
The four argue that the actions of their employers contravened articles nine and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibit religious discrimination and allow "freedom of thought, conscience and religion".
In the French court on Tuesday, September 4, Shirley said a panel of 10 multi-national judges heard the cases outlined by a barrister and then the Government's case. Their decision could be months away.
A spokesman for the RD&E said: "The RD&E has maintained throughout that staff should comply with the trust policy on dress code and uniform and that wearing a necklace of any description ran the risk of compromising safety of hospital patients and staff providing patient care.
"This policy is entirely consistent with Department of Health guidelines."