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STRASBOURG (Reuters) - Europe's top human rights court ruled on Tuesday that equality laws and safety concerns trumped religious freedom in three cases where British Christians were sacked or sanctioned for expressing their beliefs at work.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled employers did not violate the religious rights of a registrar who refused to officiate for civil partnerships of same-sex couples and a counselor deemed unwilling to offer sex therapy for gays.
It also turned down an appeal by a nurse whose hospital barred her from wearing a cross around her neck. In the fourth case in the verdict, a British Airways clerk suspended for wearing a cross won her appeal and was awarded damages.
"The principle of non-discrimination against gay people has been upheld," said Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society which opposed all the appeals.
"The rights of gay people to fair and equal treatment would have been kicked back by decades" if the two appeals concerning same-sex partnership had been upheld, he said.
Andrea Williams, whose Christian Legal Centre in London represented two of the losing plaintiffs, said she would make a final appeal to the ECHR Grand Chamber.
She said the ruling let the government decide who abided by "an equality policy that promotes a same-sex agenda and asks you to believe in it, to comply with it and promote it."
The trend toward stronger equality laws to prevent discrimination against homosexuals has created problems for religious groups that consider same-sex relations to be sinful.
The Catholic Church has closed adoption services in two U.S. states because it refused to give children to same-sex couples and a British Catholic adoption agency recently lost a legal battle to win an exemption from equality laws there.
The court found the London borough of Islington had the right to discipline registrar Lillian Ladele in 2007 for refusing to perform ceremonies for gay civil unions, which she said went against her faith.
"What this case shows is that Christians with traditional beliefs about marriage are at risk of being left out in the cold," said Mike Judge, spokesman for The Christian Institute, a non-denominational charity that backed Ladele's case.
The ECHR also rejected the appeal of relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane, dismissed in 2008 when his employer, Relate counseling service, concluded his Christian beliefs would stand in the way of providing sex therapy to homosexual couples.
"There was no need for me to be dismissed. No one was ever denied a service," McFarlane said after the verdict came out. "I simply wanted to do my job in light of my Christian identity but I was policed and punished for my thoughts, for my beliefs."
In the third case, the ECHR agreed with hospital officials that nurse Shirley Chaplin's cross could cause injury to her if a patient pulled it or it came into contact with an open wound.
It said "the protection of health and safety in a hospital ward" was "inherently more important" than her wish to manifest her faith and the hospital was the best judge of each case.
Chaplin rejected that argument as ridiculous. "I've been bitten, I've been scratched, I've had computers thrown at me, but no-one has ever, ever grabbed my crucifix," she told reporters in London.
Upholding the appeal of British Airways employee Nadia Eweida, the ECHR said her religious rights took precedence over BA's "wish to project a certain corporate image."
She was suspended in 2006, when BA's dress code allowed Sikh turbans and Muslim headscarves, and returned to work 17 months later after Christian and Jewish symbols were added to the list.
"I am very pleased that Christian religious rights have been vindicated both in the United Kingdom and in Europe," she told Reuters, adding she was disappointed for the other plaintiffs.
British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the court on Twitter for upholding Eweida's case: "Delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld - people shouldn't suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs."
He plans to submit a bill to allow faith symbols at work.
Paul Lambdin, an employment law expert with the British firm Stevens and Bolton LLP, said the effect of the rejected appeals would be that "others with similar religious convictions may be lawfully excluded from certain jobs."
Gregor Puppinck of the European Centre for Law and Justice, which supported the appeals, said the three rulings amounted to a "monopolistic imposition of postmodern ideology over individual consciences and religious beliefs."
The ECHR has in the past given considerable leeway to member states to decide issues of religion in the public sphere.
It has allowed a French school to require Muslim students to remove headscarves for sports classes but also let Italian state schools leave crucifixes hanging in classrooms.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Stephen Addison; Writing by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall