The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York have called on British Airways (BA) to reconsider its decision to refuse to allow Nadia Eweida, a check-in worker, to wear a necklace cross on the outside of her uniform.
The airline announced on November 20 that her appeal against the original instruction not to wear the cross at work had been rejected by senior management.
It said in a statement: "Personal jewellery, including crosses, may be worn -- but underneath the uniform ... The policy recognizes that it is not practical for some religious symbols -- such as turbans and [Islamic] hijabs to be worn underneath the uniform. This is purely a question of practicality. There is no discrimination between faiths whatsoever. We want Nadia to come back to work."
Dr. John Sentamu of York, second in the Church of England hierarchy, said on November 20: "This decision by British Airways is nonsense and is based on flawed reasoning. The basis for the decision should not be 'practicality' as BA suggests, but rather whether it impacts on Nadia's ability to carry out her duties at the check in counter."
At a press conference in Rome on November 24, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, said: "I said some weeks ago that I regarded it as absolutely basic that people of any faith should have the right to display the signs of their faith commitment in public; that's the point from which I start. What I find deeply confusing about the present situation is the response of BA, which doesn't seem to make it clear whether they're simply talking about regulations, concerning a piece of jewelry or whether they are in some sense claiming that the cross is a source of offence.
"Now if BA is really saying or implying that the wearing of a cross in public is a source of offence, then I regard that as deeply offensive and, in a society where religious liberty and the expression of religious commitment is free, I regard it as something really quite serious. If they're saying that it's to do with matters of health and safety, I would question whether that is a sensible kind of regulation, whether in fact there really is a problem here, and I would ask them to look very seriously at this, given the enormous reaction of dismay that's been caused in the Christian community."
On flying to Rome with British Airways, Williams said: "All of this came up last weekend in its present form; I have a responsibility for proper use of the resources of staff and money and reorganizing at short notice expensively and complicatedly doesn't seem to me a responsible use given the time scale. I'll have to be consulting with others in the Church of England about our whole attitude to BA in which, as you know, we have some financial investment; that's a question that's already been raised for discussion with the Church Commissioners in London.
"It's just perhaps worth noting with some irony that amongst the duty-free jewelry items for sale are some crosses."
Sentamu noted that, "Under BA's current reasoning, an employee who turned up to work wearing a three foot long cross must be allowed to wear it, because to hide such a cross under their uniform would be impractical. Yet in Nadia’s case, a cross less than three inches is deemed a problem."
He added: "British Airways needs to look again at this decision and to look at the history of the country it represents; whose culture, laws, heritage and tradition owes so much to the very same symbol it would ban."
Eweida, 55, who refused an alternative back-room job, and chose not to accept suspension on pay until the matter was resolved, has the right to a second appeal and has told reporters that she is prepared to take her case all the way to the High Court.
Fellow employees have signed a petition backing her stand. Non-religious figures such as London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone and the director of the pressure group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, have voiced support for her.