EU says company ban on wearing headscarves may be admissible

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The European Union’s top lawyer says employers can stop workers wearing headscarves in certain circumstances.

If the ban is based on a general company rule which prohibits political, philosophical and religious symbols from being worn visibly in the workplace,then it may be justified if it enables the employer to pursue the legitimate policy of ensuring religious and ideological neutrality.

The case involved Samira Achbita, who is of Muslim faith, who worked as a receptionist for the Belgian company G4S Secure Solutions, which is an undertaking that provides security and guarding services as well as reception services.

After having worked for three years for the company she insisted that she should be allowed to go to work in future wearing an Islamic headscarf. She was dismissed as a result, since G4S prohibits the wearing of any visible religious, political and philosophical symbols.

Supported by the Belgian Centre for Equal Opportunities and Combating Racism, she brought an action before the Belgian courts seeking damages from G4S. Her action was unsuccessful before the first two tiers of courts. The Belgian Court of Cassation, before which the case is now pending, has made a request to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling seeking clarification of the prohibition under EU law of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.

In today’s Opinion, Advocate General Juliane Kokott takes the view that there is no direct discrimination on the ground of religion where an employee of Muslim faith is banned from wearing an Islamic headscarf in the workplace, provided that that ban is founded on a general company rule prohibiting visible political, philosophical and religious symbols in the workplace and not on stereotypes or prejudices against one or more particular religions or against religious beliefs in general. If that is the case, there is no less favourable treatment based on religion.

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That ban may constitute indirect discrimination based on religion,2 but may, however,3 be justified in order to enforce a legitimate4 policy of religious and ideological neutrality pursued by the employer in the company concerned, in so far as the principle of proportionality is observed in that regard.