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Bosses Can Ban Religious Clothing, EU Judge Says

Bosses Can Ban Religious Clothing, EU Judge Says

Employment law policies on religious dress

The European Union’s top legal adviser has said that employers can ban workers from wearing headscarves, crucifixes and other religious clothing.

The opinion of Juliane Kokott, advocate-general at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), offers a strong indication of how Europe’s top court will eventually decide in a landmark ruling expected later this year.

Previous rulings on religious dress codes have come from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, which is not part of the EU and whose decisions are not binding upon national governments.

Belgian court sought clarity on EU anti-discrimination laws

Ms Kokott's opinion was handed down after a Belgian court sought guidance from the ECJ on whether or not a rule forbidding all staff from wearing any visible political or religious symbols could lead to direct discrimination against Muslims who wish to wear a headscarf at work.

The Belgian case referred to the ECJ involved Samira Achbita, a Muslim secretary who worked for security firm G4S and who was 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, supported by the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, launched a case for wrongful dismissal in the Belgian courts. A lower court and appeal court dismissed her claim, but her case was passed to the ECJ in Luxembourg, which has the final say over the interpretation of the EU’s anti-discrimination directive.

ECJ opinion must apply across the board

In her opinion, Ms Kokott said the G4S ban was an appropriate and proportional policy in line with the company’s objectives of religious and ideological neutrality.

“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,” she wrote.

Ms Kokott stressed that it is for the domestic courts to strike a fair balance between the needs of the employer and the employee’s individual rights, but believed that the employer’s stance in this case was justified.

Other reasons for banning religious symbols could include hygiene considerations as well as whether employees came face to face with customers. Banning headscarves in a call centre would not be appropriate, it was argued.

Such a prohibition would not be able to target specific religions, according to Ms Kokott’s opinion, and must apply across the board.

In general, what counted as a necessary or legitimate ban on symbols of religion should be a matter for national courts, said Ms Kokott. A country’s “national identity” should be taken into account when determining whether bans on religious symbols contravened EU rules – so a country such as France, with its constitutional commitment to secularism, could be able to enforce stricter rules on banning religious items than other member states.

A spokesman for G4S in the UK, where the company has its global HQ, said: “We work hard to create an inclusive environment for our employees in all countries where we operate. The recent opinion issued by the advocate-general in a case in Belgium will not affect our UK business.”

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.

Supporting employees through Ramadan

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts on June 6th.

UK employers must comply with the Equality Act 2010 and maintain a working environment in which no one is put at a disadvantage because of religion or belief.

Companies risk discrimination claims if they treat those observing Ramadan less favourably than other employees, or if they operate policies that cause those observing Ramadan to suffer a disadvantage.

Employers are advised to inform all employees of what Ramadan entails and the effect on participating colleagues. Support can take the form of being flexible with working hours, duties and break times. Meetings, training and other important tasks can be held in the mornings when fasting employees’ energy levels are likely to be higher.

Employment law advice for employers

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