The European Court of Justice has ruled that employers are entitled to ban workers from wearing headscarves to work.
The court ruled that any ban on the ‘visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign’ must be based on internal company rules requiring all employees to ‘dress neutrally’.
The ruling made clear that if the ban was only applied to Muslim members of staff it could still constitute discrimination.
Companies would need to already have a policy in place prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols and would not be able to ban staff from wearing headscarves on the “wishes of a customer”.
The case was brought by a Belgian receptionist who was fired for wearing a headscarf to work.
Samira Achbita, a receptionist for security company G4S, was dismissed after insisting on wearing her Islamic headscarf to work.
Ms Achbita challenged the decision in the Belgian courts, claiming she was being discriminated against on grounds of her religion.
Achbita claimed that she was being discriminated against on the grounds of her religion but the case was dismissed by two courts. The case was then referred to the European Court of Justice for clarification on what is banned by EU anti-discrimination laws.
Juliane Kokott, Advocate General to the European Court of Justice, said:
“While an employee cannot ‘leave’ their sex, skin colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability at the door upon entering their employer’s premises, they may be expected to moderate the exercise of their religion in the workplace. Such a ban may be justified if it enables the employer to pursue the legitimate policy of ensuring religious and ideological neutrality.”
Bob Cordran, partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney said:
“This case should be treated with extreme caution by employers, at least in the UK. It does not allow them simply to “ban headscarves”.
“In an age of ever-increasing awareness of diversity, inclusion and tolerance of difference in the workplace, this case appears to be a large backwards step. In truth it is no such thing, and will be of no assistance to an employer wanting to single out a particular religion or certain items of religious clothing in their dress code,” Cordran says.
“There is perhaps a danger of some employers seeing only the headlines and believing that this case allows the “banning” of headscarves or other signs of particular religions, when it really does not do that. What it does say is that in very specific circumstances, a complete ban on any visible political, philosophical or religious signs can be acceptable, but it will be a very rare employer– at least in the UK – which would feel the need to try to do this and risk not only indirect discrimination claims but also a very unhappy workforce,”