The modest gold cross that Mary Onuoha has worn around her neck every day since childhood is one of her most valued things, a symbol of the 61-year-old nurse’s strong devotion.
‘Every time I look at it, I think of Jesus, His love, how much He loved me, and the need for me to love Him back,’ she says.
Even if they do not share those sentiments, few people could not be moved by their genuineness. You would believe that this modest and inconspicuous symbol of her faith couldn’t possibly offend her.
Unfortunately, Mary’s bosses at the South London hospital where she worked as a theatre practitioner for 19 years had a different opinion, and she had been requested to remove the cross that had been given to her at her baptism on several occasions in recent years.
Mary was told that the necklace ‘harbored bacteria,’ but she believes she was singled out for wearing a symbol of her Christian faith, despite the fact that many of her coworkers were allowed to wear turbans, hijabs, and wristbands to show their religious beliefs.
A manager once summoned her from her nursing responsibilities in the middle of an operation to penalize her for wearing it, ostensibly endangering the safety of the patients, she claims.
When Mary refused to take it off, she was demoted to clerical labor and subjected to a protracted campaign of abuse, which rendered her unable to work.
After dealing with a lot of stress, she filed a lawsuit against Croydon Health Services NHS Trust in October of last year, alleging harassment, victimization, direct and indirect discrimination, and constructive and unfair dismissal.
Mary’s case was won last week by employment judge Daniel Dyal, who decided Mary had been constructively terminated in an unfair and discriminatory manner.
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’s a bittersweet vindication for Mary, who believes the case illustrates the hostility and discrimination faced by many Christians in the workplace, a viewpoint supported by Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Here, 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.’
‘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.’
It’s a surprising turn of events for a woman who thought she was arriving in a free country when she landed in the UK from Nigeria in 1988 to pursue her goal 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.’
It’s apparent that Mary has been through a lot. She is a proud, soft-spoken woman who finds it difficult to narrate recent events, and her voice falters regularly as she recounts her ordeal.
The Christian faith was central to Mary’s upbringing in a Nigerian hamlet, where she was the oldest of 10 siblings in a loving family. And it was then that a family tragedy prompted her to pursue a career as a nurse.
‘When I was 15 my beloved two-year-old brother died of measles,’ she recalls. ‘I was so sad that there wasn’t the medical care available for him that could have saved him at that time in the area where I lived. This made me passionate about caring for people and about medicine. I was determined to help my mother and make sure it did not happen again.’
Mary and her husband Charles immigrated to the United Kingdom and settled in South London, where they raised their family and where Mary earned her nursing degree.
She began working at Croydon University Hospital in November 2001, eventually becoming a theatre practitioner, a nurse who works largely in the operating room and provides pre- and post-operative care. Her cross was occasionally hidden by her scrubs, but it was also visible at times.
It drew no attention until 2014, when the theatre manager at the time urged her to take it down for health and safety reasons. ‘I refused and said words to the effect of ‘What about hijabs, turbans and kalava bracelets?’,’ Mary recalls. ‘She said she would get back to me but did not do so.’
A year went by without issue until late 2015, when a matron requested that Mary use a larger chain to hide the cross beneath 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 beginning of many similar events, with a succession of managers telling her she needed to hide or remove her cross because it was a health and safety hazard. Mary was warned that if she didn’t, the situation would ‘escalate.’
Mary was persistent in her refusal. She describes the experience as “bullying.”
Then, in November 2016, Mary was in the operating room attending to a patient when her boss came in and ordered her into a side room, claiming she needed to talk about her jewelry.
‘People did say to me, ‘Why don’t you just remove your necklace?’ But I know that if I did, I would feel as if I had compromised, that I would have stepped back from my faith,’ she says.
‘I don’t want to be a lukewarm Christian. I love my job, but God comes first.’
Nonetheless, Mary’s doctor approved her off work in June 2020 because the stress had grown too severe. She resigned two months later, basically being driven out of a job she enjoyed. She was unable to work for months following, but she has now found new employment. ‘I never imagined myself in a scenario like this,’ she recalls, ‘but I was determined to get through it.’
Judge Dyal ruled last week that the dress-code standard was enforced “in an arbitrary manner” with “no convincing explanation” as to why plain rings, neckties, hijabs, and turbans were allowed but a cross necklace was not.
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.’