• European Court backs workplace ban on headscarves and religious symbols

  • 1 Jun 2016
  • Comments 4 comments

Policies ‘clearly targeted at Muslims’ will only cause greater resentment and alienation, experts claim

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, a lawyer of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.

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, an 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 spokesman for G4S in the UK said: “We work hard to create an inclusive environment for our employees in all countries where we operate.”

However, Dr Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, said: "While the legal opinion here is careful to outlaw all forms of religious observance, the context is one where laws about religion generally are clearly targeted at Muslims in an increasingly secular Europe. The challenge for Europe is not only to respond better to employment inequalities and discrimination but also to ensure Muslims – and indeed other religious believers and ethnic minorities – feel confident and included in being European."

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.

In a separate case, the ECJ will have to consider whether a French IT engineer – who was dismissed after she refused to take off her veil at the request of a client – was a victim of discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Hannaa Osman, senior academic in the department of tourism and hospitality at Bournemouth University, said that a binding decision to ban religious and political symbols in the workplace could lead to “greater resentment and alienation” from employees asked to remove religious symbols whilst at work.

“It is a fundamental right in Europe that people are free to practice their own religion. A blanket ban goes against freedom of religion and it would lead to discrimination against those who may be skilled and qualified for the job, but choose to wear the headscarf or express themselves in adherence to their religion,” she said.

Employers with policies banning religious symbols will need to adequately justify that all religious symbols and garments are banned, so that one religion is not targeted over another, Eleanor Gilbert, senior associate at Winckworth Sherwood advised.

“The Employment Tribunal would interrogate the policy when deciding if the employer can objectively justify it, and it would look at the nature of the business, its customers and whether there is any evidence to suggest that someone with covered hair may affect business.”

Related stories

Muslims: Britain’s hidden talent pool
Misunderstood and marginalised, the talents of the UK’s 2.7 million Muslims are often wasted at work. People Management asks them what’s to blame for the disconnect

Don’t shy away from religion in the workplace
Employment lawyers warn of rise in cases; organisations must understand distinction between penalising beliefs and conduct

Religion: the last workplace taboo

Will a court verdict on BA’s cross-wearing clerk help us confront issues of faith in the office? Or is another unholy row brewing? 

Eweida loses appeal to wear crucifix at work

Add Comment
Comment List
Comments (4)
  • Religion should not be acknowledged within the workplace at all. I believe in Alice In Wonderland, I think my employer would have something to say if I turned up to work in an Alice costume or Mad Hatter hat. We don't acknowledge political alliances at work (apart from Union intervention) it's about time employers and HR stood up to this nonsense, it's not discrimination to ask someone to leave their beliefs at the door, homo-phobes and racists have to adhere by not bringing their outdated opinions to work, so should all religious people.

  • This is a very retrograde step as it effectively denies certain individuals from certain jobs. Unless a symbol, clothing or behaviour impacts on health and safety or is oppressive to people of other faiths or none, it should be allowed.

    Employers and customers need to accept that there is a rich world of diversity and people have the freedom to express their deeply held faith in the workplace. Anyone who wants tolerance given to them (which is everyone) should give the same tolerance to others. I am not of the Muslim faith, but my own faith requires me to support those not of my faith.

  • It seems that the employer would have to ban all religious symbols from all religions (to avoid a charge of discrimination) so we would be back to the days of Sikhs being asked to remove their turbans, as they were when driving buses in Britain in the 1960s. There would be no crucifix nor Jewish skull cap allowed etc etc. I just do not see British employers going down such a route. Face covering, I guess might be banned on other grounds e.g. in schools or customer facing jobs where the creation of empathy is important. As a general principle i think that headscarf bans are, and likely to be seen as, an attack on the Muslim community. This will create more, not less feeling of antipathy, and be exactly what IS would like to see Western countries doing.

  • I'm unhappy with this. It's clearly designed to be a balanced judgement, but don't far more Muslims (and Sikhs) than adherents of any other religion wear religious symbols openly? It feels discriminatory.