Qantas isn’t just facing a commercial battle over business seats. It’s also facing a legal battle over religious freedom in a storm stirred up by its uniform policy.
Former Qantas employee, Georgina Sarikoudis, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, says Qantas discriminated against her Christian faith because she was forced to remove a bracelet and a necklace with a crucifix on it.
Current Qantas uniform policy allows Muslim women to wear head scarfs but does not allow any jewellery to be worn over the uniform, and that includes crucifixes and religious bracelets.
A Qantas spokeswoman emphasised that “our uniform standards don’t prohibit employees from wearing religious jewellery. It’s simply worn under the uniform.”
Now Ms Sarikoudis wants to have her day in court to argue that Qantas has denied her right to demonstrate her faith and has violated her right to religious freedom.
Perhaps she was encouraged by what happened to British Airways which had a similar policy of not allowing jewellery to be worn over the uniform.
When BA told employee Nadia Edeida, a committed Christian, to remove her small, visible cross, she took her case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Court overruled the English courts and held that Ms Edeida’s right to “manifest” her religion was protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and that she was entitled to wear her cross at work.
But in striking a balance between the interests of the employer in maintaining a corporate image and those of the employee wishing to manifest their belief, the European Court went too far in favour of the employee.
Christians like Ms Sarikoudis are not required by their faith to wear a crucifix on a necklace. It is different for Sikh men who must wear a turban or Muslim women who cover their heads with the hijab.
At best, wearing a cross is a modest act of piety. At worst, a decoration.
On the face of it, Qantas’s position seems reasonable enough. After all, an employer is entitled to decide upon a uniform for its employees and set appropriate standards for how that uniform will be worn in the workplace.
Religious freedom is not about the freedom to do or wear whatever you want just because of your particular beliefs. Rather, religious freedom is fundamentally about freedom from coercion or indoctrination.
If Qantas had instructed Ms Sarikoudis to abandon her Christian faith as condition of employment, it would certainly have been guilty of discriminating against her.
But Qantas did no such thing. It simply implemented a uniform policy that applied equally to all employees.
When applied equally, the Qantas uniform policy had an unequal impact on some religious believers, such as Ms Sarikoudis.
But that’s a long way from saying that she has been discriminated against or that the policy is unjust. There is no absolute right to religious freedom.