The Court of Justice of the European Union has recently given its judgment in a case concerning an employee’s right to wear visible religious symbols at work.
The case in question involved Samira Achbita, a Muslim, who worked as a receptionist for G4S in Belgium. At the time of Ms Achbita’s employment there was an unwritten rule within G4S that prohibited employees from wearing visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace.
In April 2006, Ms Achbita informed her employer that she intended to wear an Islamic headscarf during working hours. She was told that this was not permitted as it was contrary to the position of neutrality G4S adopted in its contacts with its customers. On 12th May 2006, after a period of absence from work due to sickness, Ms Achbita notified her employer that she would be returning to work on 15th May and that she would in future be wearing the Islamic headscarf.
At the end of that month, the G4S works council approved an amendment to the workplace regulations, which came into force in June 2006. These provided that ‘employees are prohibited, in the workplace, from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs’. Ms Achbita was subsequently dismissed because of her continuing insistence on wearing the Islamic headscarf at work.
She challenged her dismissal in the Belgian courts, which referred the case to the Court of Justice for a decision on whether the prohibition on wearing an Islamic headscarf, which arises from a general internal rule of a private undertaking, constitutes direct discrimination.
In its judgment, the Court has said that the prohibition on wearing an Islamic headscarf, which arises from an internal rule of a private undertaking prohibiting the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign in the workplace, does not constitute direct discrimination based on religion or belief within the meaning of the directive.
It went to say that such a prohibition may constitute indirect discrimination if it is established that the apparently neutral obligation it imposes results in people adhering to a particular religion or belief being put at a particular disadvantage. However, such indirect discrimination may be objectively justified by a legitimate aim, such as the pursuit by the employer, in its relations with its customers, of a policy of political, philosophical and religious neutrality, provided that the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary. The Court added that it is up to the Belgian Court to check those conditions.
The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has issued a statement in response to the judgment, advising caution on the part of employers.
“This Court of Justice ruling does not mean businesses can target women wearing the hijab for dismissal, or introduce policies which ban religious dress from customer-facing roles,” said Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath.
She advised that any employer considering changing its policies should seek professional advice and guidance before taking any further action.
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