UK employers may ban their staff from wearing Islamic headscarves and other visible religious symbols in the workplace under certain circumstances, the European Union’s top court ruled today.
The decision by the Court of Justice (ECJ) was the first of its kind on the politically explosive issue and came about in response to a series of heated legal disputes over women who have been fired for wearing an Islamic headscarf to work.
The ECJ ruled that Belgian security firm G4S had not discriminated against receptionist Samira Achbita when she was sacked for wearing a headscarf in 2006, since it had a rule in place that banned staff who dealt with customers from wearing religious or political symbols.
An office worker in Bradford, West Yorkshire
“An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination,” the court said.
Delivering its judgement, the court said that a company’s desire to project a neutral image is legitimate, if it is enforced by internal dress code rules.
“The rule thus treats all employees to the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally,” it said.
It depends on the dress code
The wearing of the headscarf is a debated political issue in Germany
In passing its judgement today, the ECJ also ruled on another case of a woman who was dismissed for wearing an Islamic headscarf.
Design engineer Asma Bougnaoui was sacked by French IT company, Micropole, after a customer complained that his employees were “embarrassed” by her headscarf when she visited them to share advice.
She had been warned that wearing a headscarf may be problematic for the firm’s customers.
In response, the ECJ said that customers cannot demand that employees remove their headscarves, if the company in question has no policy that bans the wearing of religious symbols.
“… In the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination,” it said.
However, it added that it was up to the French courts to decide whether Bougnaoui had been fired based on a failure to adhere to company policy.
A divided reaction
Muslim women attend an integration event in Lyon, France
The ECJ ruling comes at a time of unprecedented political tension across Europe; the issue of Muslim immigration takes centre stage as the Netherlands holds a general election tomorrow and as France warms up to its own presidential vote.
The decision kicked up a storm of controversy, with many organisations saying it paved the way for prejudice.
“In places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace," policy office Maryam Hmadoun, of The Open Society Justice Initiative, told Reuters.
Amnesty International branded the ruling “disappointing”.
"Muslim women already experience significant obstacles in finding and keeping a job and this decision will only make matters worse, giving employers a licence to discriminate,” it said.
But Francois Fillon, French conservative presidential candidate, hailed the decision as a “huge relief”.
"The judgment ... defends the secular nature of society and puts a stop to the pushing of religious interests,” he said.
Women wearing headscarves: where Europe stands
Muslim women shopping in Knightsbridge, London
The ECJ ruling on wearing Islamic headscarves in the workplace passed some responsibility onto the national laws of member states, but Europe has a patchwork response when it comes to this controversial issue.
Germany recently overturned a state ban on teachers wearing hijabs in schools, after years of legal dispute. But chancellor Angela Merkel has supported a ban of full-faced veils “wherever legally possible”.
In January this year, Austria’s government agreed to ban full-face veils in public places such as courts and schools.
In 2011, France became the first European country to ban full-face Islamic veils in public places and it has since upheld the move with thousands of bans.
The decision was widely welcomed in a country where the separation of state and religion is a central part of its legal system.
Under current UK discrimination law, a ban on wearing an Islamic head covering of any kind would be lawful only if it was considered a “genuine occupational requirement”.
This would only cover certain, very specific circumstances, e.g. a nursery that objected to a Muslim employee who wore a full-length jilbab, as it was considered a tripping hazard.