Nurse punished for refusing to hide cross necklace sues London hospital: 'Attack on my faith'

Mary Onuoha
Mary Onuoha | Christian Legal Centre

A Christian nurse claims she was discriminated against, bullied, pressured and eventually coerced into resigning from her job because she wouldn't comply with a policy to either remove or cover up her cross necklace while on duty. 

London resident and nurse practitioner Mary Onuoha, 61, has filed a legal complaint against Croydon Health Services NHS Trust. She alleges that she was told that a small gold cross she wore around her neck for over 40 years as a symbol of her devout Christian faith was a safety risk and "must not be visible."

A hearing was held before the  Croydon Employment Tribunal Tuesday.

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Onuoha, who has worked as an NHS theatre practitioner for Croydon University Hospital in South London for the past 18 years, is alleging that she had to endure a two-year-long investigative process headed by her superiors for her continued refusals to remove the pendant. 

The nurse claims that she was eventually suspended from her clinical duties and demoted to working as a receptionist because she would not stop wearing the necklace, which she said gave her no other choice but to resign from her job. 

She claims she was moved from one administrative role to the next until she resigned in August 2020. 

She further claims that other clinical staff members at the hospital were allowed to wear jewelry, saris, turbans, hijabs and other religious adornments and that only the cross was subject to specific rules. 

She is represented by lawyers from the Christian Legal Centre. 

"This has always been an attack on my faith," Onuoha said in a statement. "My cross is part of me and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm. … At this hospital, there are members of staff who go to a mosque four times a day and no one says anything to them. Hindus wear red bracelets on their wrists and female Muslims wear hijabs in theatre. Yet my small cross around my neck was deemed so dangerous that I was no longer allowed to do my job."

A spokesperson for the Croydon Health Services NHS Trust told media outlets that the entity could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings. 

On Aug. 21, 2018, the lawsuit claims that Onuoha was interrupted by the head of the hospital department and asked to remove her cross while she was in an operating theatre caring for a patient under anesthetic. 

Onuoha said the patient's life was put at risk and that she was ordered to leave the operating theatre to put on another scrub so that it would cover up the cross. She again refused. She claims that at the same time, her manager ignored a blue pendant and earrings being worn by another healthcare worker in the operating theatre. 

According to the lawsuit, this was one of many similar incidents in theatre and wards where Onuoha said she was concerned about patients' safety. 

"I was astonished that senior staff were prepared to potentially endanger a patient's life in order to intimidate me to remove it," Onuoha said. "Patients often say to me, 'I really like your cross.' They always respond to it in a positive way and that gives me joy and makes me feel happy. I am proud to wear it, as I know God loves me so much and went through this pain for me." 

Growing up in Nigeria, Onuoha said that she always felt naturally drawn towards caring for people because it was in her blood from a young age. She said she was determined to become a nurse after one of her brothers tragically died from measles due to a lack of medical provision.

In 1988, she immigrated to the United Kingdom and fulfilled her ambition by beginning work at Croydon University Hospital, where she remained for nearly two decades. During that time, she reports wearing her religious pendant without any complaints or health and safety concerns from colleagues or patients.

But beginning in 2015, things changed when a succession of line managers allegedly asked Onuoha to either remove her cross, conceal it or face "'escalation.'"

Each time, Onuoha said she "politely" declined the requests and explained that her necklace is a symbol of her deeply held Christian faith.

But in August 2018, bosses at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust reportedly ordered her to remove the cross because it was "a breach of the Trust's Dress Code and Uniform Policy" and, therefore, a health risk to herself and patients.

Onuoha argues in the lawsuit that NHS management was violating its own dress code, which states:

"The Trust welcomes the variety of appearances brought by individual styles, choices and religious requirements regarding dress; this will be treated sensitively and will be agreed on an individual basis with the Manager and Trust and must conform to health, safety and security regulations, infection prevention and control and moving and handling guidelines. The wearing of saris, turbans, kirpan, skullcaps, hijabs, kippahs and clerical collars arising from particular cultural / religious norms are seen as part of welcoming diversity."

Mary Onuoha's work attire at South London's Croydon University Hospital
Mary Onuoha's work attire at South London's Croydon University Hospital | Christian Legal Centre

Contrary to the policy, the lawsuit alleges that Onuoha was required at all times to wear several lanyards that did not have anti-strangle clasps. While at the same time, the Trust claimed wearing items from the neck posed a "risk of injury or infection."

"All I have ever wanted is to be a nurse and to be true to my faith," Onuoha explained. "I am a strong woman, but I have been treated like a criminal. I love my job, but I am not prepared to compromise my faith for it and neither should other Christian NHS staff in this country." 

In a letter addressed to Onuoha on Aug. 9, 2018, her line manager and clinical lead practitioner wrote: "I offered you a compromise of using a longer chain so your necklace was out of sight, but you refused."

"Please note that the necklace is not only a breach of dress code policy but also a health and safety risk to patients and yourself," the letter stated. "I understand that you wear the necklace due to religious belief. … I am prepared to offer you a compromise in that you can wear a high-necked t-shirt so that the necklace is out of sight, below the v of your scrubs and out of reach of potential angry or agitated patients. I am also writing to offer you another compromise in that you can wear a high-necked t-shirt/vest top under your scrub top to cover the necklace." 

"I do hope you will see that I have tried to support your religious beliefs by allowing you to wear your necklace, but it cannot be visible when you are on clinical duties," the letter added. "This is both to adhere to Infection Control guidelines and to protect you from possible injury if confronted by angry patients or carers."

Christian Legal Centre is challenging Croydon Health Services NHS Trust on the grounds of "harassment, victimisation, direct and indirect discrimination and constructive unfair dismissal."

Onuoha's lawyers will reportedly argue that the dress code was "applied inconsistently, with other nurses and members of staff frequently wearing various types of jewelry, hijabs, saris, turbans and religious bracelets in wards and theatre without being asked to remove them."

Andrea Williams, the chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said that Onuoha's case is about "one or two members of staff being offended by the cross."

"It is upsetting that an experienced nurse, during a pandemic, has been forced to choose between her faith and the profession she loves," Williams said. "Why do some NHS employers feel that the cross is less worthy of protection or display than other religious attire?"

"How Mary was treated over a sustained period was appalling and cannot go unchallenged," she added. "Mary's whole life has been dedicated to caring for others and her love for Jesus. We are determined to fight for justice."

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