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 Christian faith. You might think, how could this small and discreet symbol of her belief possibly be so offensive to hospital officials that she was fired from her job?
Daily Mail (h/t Patty) 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.
Here, in her only newspaper interview, she say: ‘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.
‘At this hospital there are members of staff who go to a mosque four times a day and no one says anything to them 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.’
It is a turn of events that has astonished a woman who believed she was coming to a free country when she arrived in Britain from Nigeria in 1988 to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
‘I am a strong woman, but I have been treated like a criminal,’ she says. ‘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 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. ‘I refused and said words to the effect of ‘What about hijabs and turbans”‘