Employers can prevent Muslim female employees from wearing religious headscarves, so long as the ban is based on an organisation-wide policy forbidding all religious and political symbols, the European Court of Justice has ruled in the run-up to a landmark ruling expected from the EU’s highest court this year.
Such a ban would not be deemed ‘direct discrimination’ and could be “justified in order to enforce a policy of religious and ideological neutrality,” the non-binding decision read.
The Belgian case, which was referred to the ECJ, involved Samira Achbita, a Muslim secretary who worked for security firm G4S and was subsequently dismissed in 2006 after refusing to remove her religious headscarf. The company said the wearing of a religious garment was against its dress code. At the time of Achbita’s dismissal, however, the rule was unwritten.
The day after her dismissal, G4S Belgium updated its code of conduct to ban “any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs.”
Achbita sued the Belgian division of G4S with the support of the Infederal Organisation for Equal Opportunities, claiming that she was being discriminated against on the grounds of her religion.
Announcing the decision, Juliane Kokott, the advocate general of the ECJ, 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, be this in relation to religious practices, religiously motivated behaviour or (as in the present case) his clothing.”
“A headscarf should be seen no differently to a Jewish kippa, a Sikh turban or a Christian wearing a prominent crucifix or a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Jesus is great”, “
A spokesman for G4S in the UK said: “We work hard to create an inclusive environment for our employees in all countries where we operate.”
A final judgment in the case of Achbita v G4S will be given later in the year and will be the first of two landmark decisions in religious discrimination cases expected in 2016.