Employers may ban workers from wearing religious symbols, EU court rules

(Wikimedia Commons/Danny-w)Display figures with hijab, in east Jerusalem market.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that employers can prohibit its workers from wearing religious symbols, such as headscarves or cross necklaces, at the workplace.

The judges had concluded that workplaces which prohibit employees from wearing visible political, philosophical or religious signs are not in violation of discrimination laws.

The decision was part of a ruling in a case in which two Belgian women were fired from their jobs for wearing headscarves at work, according to Premier.

The first case involved Samira Achbita, who worked as a receptionist for the Belgian branch of G4S. She was fired in June 2006 after she refused to remove a headscarf, which she started wearing after three years of working for the company.

In the second case, Asma Bougnaoui, a design engineer at a French IT consultancy firm called Micropole, was fired from her job after a complaint from a customer.

The two cases went to the ECJ after losing in Belgium, but the judges at the European court upheld the decision of the lower courts.

"[A]n employer's desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate," the ruling stated.

The decision may also affect people of other beliefs, such as Christians who wear crosses and Jewish men who wear skull caps.

In the case Achbita, the ECJ said that it was up to the Belgian judges to determine whether she may have been a victim of indirect discrimination if the company's policy put people of a particular faith at a disadvantage. However, the policy could still be justified if it was "genuinely pursued in a consistent and systematic manner" to project an "image of neutrality," Religion News Service reported.

In Bougnaoui's case, the European court stated that the French courts must determine whether such a rule exists. The ECJ said that there are "only very limited circumstances" in which a religious symbol could be taken as a reason for her not to work if her dismissal was only based on meeting the particular customer's preference.

The Church of England denounced the decision, saying it would prevent Christians from exercising their religious freedom.

"This judgment once again raises vital questions about freedom of expression, not just freedom of religion, and shows that the denial of freedom of religion is not a neutral act, contrary to how it might be portrayed," said Rt. Rev. Nicholas Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, as reported by Telegraph.

Islamic groups expressed concerns that the decision could legitimize attacks on Muslims.

"This gives legal cover to what is essentially an ongoing hate campaign to make Muslims second-class citizens in Europe. It will only increase feelings of marginalisation and disenfranchisement in Muslim communities," said Arzu Merali, head of research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

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