West Midland employers have been warned to think carefully, and to adopt a positive and pro-active approach, when faced with employees wearing clothing or jewellery claimed to be of religious significance.

The warning, from David Faulkner, employment law partner at Martineau Johnson, comes in the wake of two high profile controversies.

British Airways faces a claim by a female member of the check-in staff after the airline banned her from wearing a cross around her neck, while a Muslim teaching assistant was suspended for refusing to remove her veil while teaching.

The latter case has caused a major row, particularly after Race Relations Minister Phil Woolas said that he would back a decision to dismiss the teaching assistant.

An employment tribunal has ruled that there had been no discrimination or harassment on the grounds of religion or belief, but damages were awarded for victimisation.

Mr Faulkner said: "Even though Aishah Azmi lost her claim of discrimination, the fact remains that if employers take the Minister's advice, they could well end up at the wrong end of a tribunal claim and face the payment of unlimited damages.

"Although one can see why the tribunal dismissed the harassment claim, the decision that there was no discrimination on religious grounds is somewhat surprising given her co-operation.

"Some reports prior to the tribunal's decision suggested that Mrs Azmi offered to work without the veil, as long as no male teachers were present.

"If that is the case, she would certainly have strengthened her position.

"What Mrs Azmi appears to have done is make clear that face-to-face contact with children would be possible.

"This seems to have gone some considerable way to acknowledging the school's concerns about her properly carrying out the essential functions of her job.

"Employers have to positively consider whether they can accommodate religious expression in the workplace, and have clear reasons for saying they can't.

"On the face of it, there seems to be no reason for the school to reject the proposal and it seems highly likely that there will be an appeal.

"I would urge employers to exercise caution and not be influenced by the Minister's view, given the way the law stands in the UK at present.

"If other employers are influenced by his statement, it is they and not the Minister who could pay the price, as the potential damages for discrimination claims are unlimited.

"Employers should not think that this tribunal decision gives them a green light to insist that expressions of religious belief, like the veil, be kept out of the workplace.

"Employers should also note that the claim of victimisation succeeded because the school appears to have hardened its attitude to the employee once she began legal proceedings."

Mr Faulkner says that British Airways may also find themselves in difficulty.

"Unless BA can show a good reason for banning employees from wearing the cross, for example a health and safety problem, they too may face a claim for religious discrimination.

"The issues that can arise in this area cover a broad range of situations, from making arrangements for specific holiday dates that meet the needs of religious groups through to appearance and clothing requirements.

"The law is widely drawn and great care is needed to avoid being at the wrong end of tribunal claims."

Mr Faulkner says there are situations where special employer requirements can be justified.

"If there are specific requirements of a job, for example face-to-face contact needs or health and safety issues, it is preferable to consider these at the outset, and include the appropriate explanation in job specifications and similar documentation," he said.

"Clear communication is vital and this way, any claim for discrimination will be much harder to sustain.

"There is not a huge amount of case law on religious discrimination but there seems little doubt that the publicity surrounding the recent cases could lead to many more.

"Employers need to be prepared for this. Now is the time to review how workplace practices impact on employees of different religious beliefs and take positive steps to address any concerns."