Employers can ban religious symbols from workplace, EU rules

By Kim Abrahams
15 March 2017

Critics called the EU move "a thinly veiled measure targeting Muslims".

The European Union’s top court made a ruling on Tuesday that allows employers to ban visible religious symbols at the workplace.

This after a French and a Belgian woman were dismissed from their place of work for refusing to remove their headscarves. The French woman’s hijab was apparently offensive to a customer.

"An internal rule of an undertaking, which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious signs, doesn't constitute direct discrimination," the European Court of Justice said in a statement.

"However, 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 can't be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination."

While the court accepted that the barring of a headscarf could constitute "indirect discrimination" of followers of a specific religious practice, this indirect discrimination would pass if it were to be "objectively justified by a legitimate aim" – such as the company preferring its employees dress neutrally.

The court’s verdict, which is the first of its kind, technically applies to other religious symbols, such as Sikh turbans, Jewish kippahs and Christian crucifixes.

“It’s fine for employers to have a dress code but it needs to be applied with some sensitivity and flexibility to take account of religious beliefs,” says Jonathan Chamberlain, an employment lawyer at Gowling WLG.

"What's almost certainly never okay is for an employer to tell an employee to stop wearing a religious symbol because a particular customer has asked for it."

Critics called the EU move "a thinly veiled measure targeting Muslims", according to AlJazeera.

"A ban on religious and political symbols feels to me as a disguised ban on the hijab. I can't think of another symbol that will affect hundreds of thousands of people in Europe ," Warda el-Kaddouri told the news organisation.

"By stating that veiled women can simply take off their hijab, you imply that the empowerment of women to be in control of their own body and to make individual decisions is reserved for white women only."

Sources: Independent.co.uk, Ibtimes.comAlJazeera

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