In a significant ruling, described by Britain’s faith groups as a “victory” for religious beliefs and a setback for “aggressive” secularism, the European Court of Human Rights has upheld the right of a British Airways’ (BA) woman employee to wear a cross to work.

It said Nadia Eweida (60), a practising Coptic Christian, suffered religious discrimination when BA banned her from wearing a small silver cross to work citing its uniform policy which did not permit displaying items of jewellery.

The court ordered the British government to pay her £1,600 in damages and £25,000 to cover costs. It said the British authorities “failed” sufficiently to protect her rights under Article 9 of the ECHR, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, called the ruling “an excellent result for equal treatment, religious freedom and common sense”.

The National Secular Society said it remained opposed to display of religious fervour in public.

BA said it had changed its uniform policy following the uproar over the Eweida case in 2006, and that since 2007 she and other employees were allowed to wear “symbols of faith” to work. Ms. Eweida returned to work in customer services at Heathrow Airport in 2007 after the change in policy.

Three other Christians — Lillian Ladele, Shirley Chaplin, and Gary McFarlane — who also claimed religious discrimination at work lost their appeals.