Christian nurse sues NHS trust over cross necklace policy

Mary Onuoha says she was "treated like a criminal"(Photo: Christian Legal Centre)

A Christian nurse is suing a London NHS trust for unfair dismissal over claims she was forced out of her job for wearing a cross necklace. 

Mary Onuoha, a theatre practitioner for 18 years, will tell an employment tribunal today that she had worn her cross necklace at Croydon University Hospital for many years without incident until 2015, when she says she was warned of "escalation" by bosses unless she removed or concealed it while on duty.

The devout Christian, who wears the necklace as a symbol of her faith, says this was followed by a campaign of harassment in which she was "treated like a criminal", despite other religious staff members being allowed to wear jewellery, saris, turbans and hijabs. 

She says the situation escalated in August 2018 when bosses at Croydon Health Services NHS Trust ordered her to remove the cross on the grounds that it breached the hospital dress code and was therefore a health risk to her and the patients. 

The 61-year-old says the hospital's position contradicted the several lanyards she says she was required to wear around her neck at all times, as well as the hospital's own dress code, which states that religious requirements "will be treated sensitively". 

Bosses are reported to have said that while in clinical areas, she could wear the necklace as long as it was under her scrubs and "out of sight", and that security may have to be called in if she did not comply.

Mary Onuoha's cross necklace with her work attire including lanyards she says she was required to wear at all times.(Photo: Christian Legal Centre)

After refusing to remove or hide her necklace, Mrs Onuoha says she was subsequently given non-clerical administrative roles.

In April 2019 she received a final written warning and in June 2020 she came off work due to stress, resigning two months later. 

At the tribunal in Croydon, Mrs Onuoha's lawyers will argue that the dress code was applied inconsistently and that the hospital's demands were not driven by concerns around safety and hygiene but the visibility of the cross.

Commenting on her case, Mrs Onuoha said she was "astonished" by the policy.

"This has always been an attack on my faith. My cross has been with me for 40 years. It is part of me, and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm," she 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.

"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."

She added, "All I have ever wanted is to be a nurse and to be true to my faith. 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."

Andrea Williams, CLC chief executive, said Ms Onuoha had been treated appallingly.

"From the beginning this case has been about one or two members of staff being offended by the cross - the worldwide, recognised and cherished symbol of the Christian faith," she said. 

"It is upsetting that an experienced nurse, during a pandemic, has been forced to choose between her faith and the profession she loves.

"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.

"Mary's whole life has been dedicated to caring for others and her love for Jesus. We are determined to fight for justice."

A spokesperson for Croydon Health Services NHS Trust said, "We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings."