The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK had failed to protect Nadia Eweida’s freedom to manifest her faith in the workplace.
But it rejected a similar legal challenge from Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, ruling that the hospital where she worked should be able to refuse permission to wear a cross on “health and safety” grounds.
Both women lost employment tribunal cases in Britain after being refused the right to wear a cross as a symbol of their faith under their employers’ uniform policy.
And in a hearing in Strasbourg last year the UK Government argued that this was not a breach of their human rights and wearing a cross is not an essential tenet of Christianity.
But in its judgment the court said that manifesting religion is a “fundamental right”.
It added: “[This is because] a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity; but also because of the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others.”
The ruling in favour of Mrs Eweida represents a humiliation for David Cameron who promised to change the law to enshrine workers’ right to wear the cross ”“ even as lawyers for his Government were actively fighting the women in court.
It led to accusations of hypocrisy.
But, in a decision which could have even wider long-term implications, the court also rejected parallel challenges brought by two other Christians who lost their jobs for taking a stand on what they saw as a matter of conscience.