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Religious freedom is a right but not an absolute one, Europe's top court said Tuesday, ruling that British Airways discriminated against a devoutly Christian employee by making her remove her crucifix, but backing a U.K. charity that fired a marriage counselor who refused to give sex therapy to gay couples.

In judgments welcomed by civil liberties groups but condemned by religious advocates, the European Court of Human Rights said freedom of religion is "an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies."

"However, where an individual's religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made," the court said.

The court's judges, by a five-two margin, backed a claim by BA check-in clerk Nadia Eweida, who sparked a national debate in Britain over religion when she was sent home in November 2006 for refusing to remove a small silver crucifix to comply with rules banning employees from wearing visible religious symbols.

BA eventually changed its policy and Eweida returned to work, but she pursued a claim of religious discrimination, seeking damages and compensation for lost wages.


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