The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that private employers may prohibit staff from wearing visible religious symbols, including Islamic headscarves, under certain conditions.
The Court issued a joint judgment in the cases of two women, from France and Belgium, who were dismissed for refusing to remove their headscarves. In the first case referred by the Belgian courts, a receptionist was dismissed on the basis that she had broken rules prohibiting religious symbols. Given the intention of the company to project a public image of neutrality, the Court found that such garments could be banned, but only as part of a general policy barring all religious and political symbols. The rule in question referred to the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs and therefore covered any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction. The rule thus treated all employees to the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally.
The Court held, however, that such an internal rule may constitute indirect discrimination if it were established that the apparently neutral obligation it imposes results, in fact, in persons adhering to a particular religion or belief being put at a particular disadvantage, unless objectively justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim were appropriate and necessary.
The second case involved dismissal of a software engineer on the grounds that she refused to remove her headscarf after a particular client objected, which the Court found may have breached EU laws relating to discrimination on religious grounds. The Court said customers’ wishes not to be served by a worker wearing a headscarf did not allow companies avoid EU anti-discrimination law. However, in the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.
The ruling may cause confusion as to which religious symbols can be worn at work, with some legal experts saying it seems to cut against a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that allowed the crucifix to be worn. The CJEU did not refer to this case law or attempt to deal with the distinction between freedom of religion and non-discrimination.
Click here for the judgement in G4S Secure Solutions NV.
Click here for further analysis of the case.
Click here for a Bulletin article on Lautsi v Italy regarding crucifixes in the workplace.