Workplace ban on Muslim headscarf backed by EU court

Non-binding opinion finds ban is legal as long as other symbols of religion are also barred

Muslim women hold a banner which says “a Choice” as they demonstrate against a French proposal to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Muslim women hold a banner which says “a Choice” as they demonstrate against a French proposal to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

 

Companies can ban Muslim staff from wearing headscarves as long as they also forbid other symbols of religion in the workplace, according to an opinion from the European Court of Justice.

The case stemmed from a complaint by Samira Achbita, a Muslim woman who was fired from her job as a receptionist by the Belgian division of security company G4S for wearing a headscarf to work, which was against the company’s rules.

Ms Achbita sued G4S in Belgium, where the courts referred the question of whether such bans were legal to the ECJ. In a non-binding opinion yesterday, a senior judge from the court argued that such bans were justifiable in certain circumstances. A final judgment will come later this year.

The case is the first of two landmark decisions expected this year on whether such bans are allowed under the bloc’s rules. It underlines the growing role played by the Luxembourg-based ECJ.

The ECJ is considering a separate case involving a French IT engineer who was dismissed by her employer after she refused to take off a veil at the request of one of her clients.

Juliane Kokott, the advocate-general at the ECJ who wrote the opinion on the Belgian case, said: “While an employee cannot ‘leave’ his sex, skin colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability ‘at the door’ upon entering his employer’s premises, he may be expected to moderate the exercise of his religion in the workplace.”

Although such opinions do not amount to a final verdict, they are often followed by the court in its judgment.

According to the opinion, companies must have a legitimate reason for banning symbols of religion, but these can vary. “The bar set for justifying differences of treatment based on religion is high but not insurmountable,” said the judge.

Companies such as G4S should be able to ensure “religious and ideological neutrality”, she wrote. Other reasons for banning religious symbols could include hygiene considerations as well as whether staff came face to face with customers. Banning headscarves in a call-centre would not be appropriate, argued the judge.

Such a prohibition would not be able to target specific religions, according to the opinion, and must be applied across the board.

But in general, what counted as a necessary or legitimate ban on symbols of religion should be a matter for national courts, the advocate-general argued. A country’s “national identity” should be taken into account when determining whether bans on headscarves broke EU rules, which would give some countries more leeway than others.

For instance, countries such as France - which has a constitutional commitment to secularism - may be able to enforce stricter rules on banning religious items than other member states, without falling foul of EU rules, according to the opinion.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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