EU court allows religious symbol ban

Luxembourg City, March 14, 2017 (TNE):  European Union’s top court ruled on Tuesday that employers may bar staff members from wearing visible religious symbols.

The ruling is the first decision on the issue of women wearing Islamic headscarves at work.

On the eve of a Dutch election in which Muslim immigration has been a key issue and a bellwether for attitudes to migration and refugee policies across Europe, the Court of Justice (ECJ) gave a joined judgment in the cases of two women, in France and Belgium, who were dismissed for refusing to remove headscarves.

The court said in a statement: “an internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.

Referring to the case of Samira Achbita, who was dismissed as a receptionist in Belgium by services firm “G4S”, the court said: “An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.”

However, it added, in the case of Asma Bougnaoui, who was dismissed by French software company Micropole: “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.”

In Achbita’s case, the Court said it was for Belgian judges to determine whether she may have been a victim of indirect discrimination if the rule put people of a particular faith at a disadvantage.

But the rule could still be justified if it was “genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner” with a “legitimate aim”, such as projecting an “image of neutrality” as part of the company’s freedom to conduct business.

In the Bougnaoui case, the EU judges in Luxembourg said it was up to French courts to determine whether she was fired for failing to comply with a similar internal rule.

If her dismissal was based only on meeting a particular customer’s preference, it saw “only very limited circumstances” in which a religious symbol could be objectively taken as reason for her not to work

The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros which had supported the women, said it was disappointed by the ruling.

The group it said the ruling “weakens the guarantee of equality that is at the heart of the EU’s anti-discrimination directive.”

“In many member states, national laws will still recognise that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination.

“In places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace,” the group’s policy officer, Maryam Hmadoun, said. (TNE)

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