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Nigerian nurse Mary Onuoha loses job in UK for wearing cross necklace

Among Mary Onuoha’s most prized possessions is the small gold cross she has worn around her neck every day of her life since childhood, a symbol of this 61-year-old nurse’s devout faith.
Few could fail to be moved by the sincerity of those sentiments, even if they do not share them. Nor, you may think, could this small and discreet symbol of her belief possibly offend.
Alas, Mary’s employers at the south London hospital where she worked as a theatre practitioner for 19 years took a different view, and in recent years she was repeatedly asked to remove the cross, a present at her baptism.
Mary was told that the necklace ‘harboured bacteria’, but she believes she was targeted for displaying a symbol of her Christian faith – even though many colleagues were allowed to sport other items expressing their religious beliefs, be they turbans, hijabs or bracelets.
On one occasion a manager even called her away from her nursing duties in an operating theatre in the middle of surgery to discipline her for wearing it – potentially risking patients’ safety, she claims.
When she refused to take it off, Mary was moved to clerical duties and became subject to what she describes as a sustained campaign of bullying that left her unable to work.
Having been signed off with stress, last October she brought a legal case against Croydon Health Services NHS Trust on the grounds of harassment, victimisation, direct and indirect discrimination, and constructive and unfair dismissal.
Last week her case ended in victory when employment judge Daniel Dyal found that Mary had been constructively dismissed in a way that was both unfair and discriminatory.
He said the trust had created a ‘humiliating, hostile and threatening environment’ and that when Mary complained, the response had been ‘offensive and intimidating’.
It is a vindication, albeit a bittersweet one, for Mary as she believes the case exposes the hostility and discrimination experienced by many Christians in the workplace, a view shared by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.
In her only newspaper interview, she tells The Mail on Sunday: ‘This has always been an attack on my faith. My cross has been with me for more than 40 years. It is part of me, and my faith, and it has never caused anyone any harm.
It is clear that what Mary has endured runs deep. A proud, softly-spoken woman, she finds it hard to relate the events of recent years, and her voice falters frequently as she tells of her experience.
The Christian faith was at the heart of the Nigerian village where Mary was raised, the eldest of ten siblings in a loving family. And it was there that a family tragedy set her on the path to becoming a nurse.
Mary moved to the UK with her husband Charles, settling in South London, where the couple have lived ever since with their family and where Mary qualified as a nurse.
In November 2001, she started to work at Croydon University Hospital, employed latterly as a theatre practitioner, a nursing role performed primarily in the operating theatre and providing pre- and post-operative care. Her cross was sometimes concealed by her scrubs, but was visible on other occasions.
However, it never attracted comment until 2014, when the theatre manager at the time asked her to remove it on health-and-safety grounds.
A year passed without further incident until, in late 2015, a matron asked Mary to wear a longer chain to conceal the cross under her uniform. ‘Again, I asked why I should hide my faith while others were allowed to show their own,’ Mary says. ‘She did not take the matter any further.’
It was the first of many similar incidents, with a succession of managers asking her to conceal or remove her cross, deeming it a health-and-safety risk. If not, Mary was told, the matter would face ‘escalation’.
Mary continually refused. ‘It felt like bullying,’ she says.
Then, in November 2016, Mary was attending a patient in surgery when her manager came in to the operating theatre and ordered her into a side room, saying she needed to discuss her necklace.
It was the start of what Mary says she can only describe as an ongoing campaign of intimidation by senior hospital managers, during which she was subjected to an investigation into her conduct.
By November 2018, she was suspended from clinical duties and instead assigned clerical work and told that security would be called if she attempted to enter a theatre area while still wearing her cross.
Of course, there will be some who think the simplest thing to have done was remove it – but that is not to reckon with the depth of Mary’s faith.
Nonetheless, by June 2020 the stress had become too much and Mary was signed off work by her doctor.
Two months later she resigned, effectively forced out of a job she loved.
For months afterwards she was unable to work, though she has now found a new job.
She was equally determined to hold her employers to account – and last week her courage was vindicated by Judge Dyal who, in a damning ruling, said that the dress-code policy was applied ‘in an arbitrary way’ and with ‘no cogent explanation’ why plain rings, neckties, hijabs and turbans were permitted, but a cross necklace was not.
Her financial compensation will be determined at a later hearing.
For Mary, it is the principle that really matters – a welcome and long overdue boost for Christian freedom.
It is a sentiment echoed by Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, who supported Mary in her legal battle.
A spokesman for Croydon Health Services NHS Trust said: ‘We would like to apologise to Mrs Onuoha. It is important that NHS staff feel able to express their beliefs, and that our policies are applied in a consistent, compassionate and inclusive way.’

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