The European Court of Human Rights has found that British Airways discriminated against a devoutly Christian employee by making her remove her crucifix while at work.
Tuesday's ruling, that religious freedom is a right, but not an absolute, also referred to BA's support of a UK charity that fired a marriage counsellor who refused to give sex therapy to gay couples.
The court said freedom of religion is "an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations
of pluralistic, democratic societies ... However, where an individual's religious observance impinges on the
rights of others, some restrictions can be made".
The judgements were embraced by civil liberties groups but criticised by religious advocates.
In a five-two margin, the court's judges supported the claim of Nadia Eweida, BA check-in clerk, that being sent home in November 2006 for refusing to remove a small silver crucifix was a violation of her rights.
The carrier's rules prohibit employees from wearing visible religious symbols while on duty.
BA eventually changed its policy and Eweida returned to work, but she pursued a claim of religious discrimination, seeking damages and compensation for lost wages.
Courts in Britain initially backed the carrier, but Eweida took her case to the European Court of Human
The judges ruled that the airline's policy "amounted to an interference with her right to manifest her religion."
The Strasbourg, France-based courtsaid while BA had the right to "project a certain corporate image ... Ms. Eweida's cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance".
Eweida, 60, said when she heard the verdict "I was jumping for joy and saying `Thank you, Jesus.'"
"It's a vindication that Christians have a right to express their faith on par with other colleagues at work visibly and not be ashamed of their faith,'' she said.
British Airways said it had changed its policy on religious symbols in 2007 and was not a party to Eweida's legal action, which was pursued against the British government.
The British government welcomed the judgment in Eweida's case.
David Cameron, prime minister, tweeted that he was "delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols
at work has been upheld."
But the court ruled against Shirley Chaplin, a nurse who was told to remove a crucifix necklace at work. The judges said Chaplin's employer banned necklaces for health and safety grounds, and so asking her to remove the symbol was not excessive.
The UK judges also struck down claims by Lillian Ladele, a local authority registrar who said her Christian faith prevented her from overseeing same-sex civil partnerships, and marriage counselor Gary McFarlane, who refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples.
In both cases, the court said employers had been entitled to strike a balance between claimants' rights to manifest their religious beliefs and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, welcomed the verdicts as "an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies