European Court rules employers can ban headscarves, political and religious garments

  • European Court rules employers can ban headscarves, political and religious garments

European Court rules employers can ban headscarves, political and religious garments

Reality Check verdict: The EU court ruling does allow private companies to adopt rules that bar workers from wearing religious symbols under certain conditions but is not a blanket ban on Islamic headscarves.

But the ban must be based on internal company rules requiring all employees to "dress neutrally", the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said.

The Belgian Court of Cassation sought clarification from the ECJ over the European Union directive on equal treatment in employment and whether the rule amounted to direct discrimination.

The ruling stems from the case of a receptionist fired for wearing a headscarf to work at security company G4S in Belgium.

Similarly, Asma Bougnaui, a design engineer, was removed by Micropole, an IT consultancy firm following a complaint from their client. "But by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to precisely such prejudice".

"Such a ban may be justified if it enables the employer to pursue the legitimate policy of ensuring religious and ideological neutrality", she added.

The ruling could be used as a "licence to discriminate at the point of hire", said Mejindarpal Kaur, global legal director of the network, United Sikhs, in an emailed statement. "Many will be anxious that this action will prevent Muslim women who chose to wear the scarf from securing jobs". The company said she had broken "unwritten rules" prohibiting religious symbols and was sacked in June 2006 after refusing to take off her scarf.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has found that two employees who were dismissed for wearing Islamic headscarves did not suffer discrimination, ending a long-running case that has implications for an array of religious clothing and symbols.

In Belgium, there are no federal rules on religious symbols at work, but the regional parliaments have taken measure to prohibit religious, political or philosophical symbols for public service workers who deal with the public.

Ms Miller told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "I think it's clear that what a woman wears is her choice and it should never be the choice of a court either here in the United Kingdom or the European Court of Justice". This involved nurse Shirley Chaplin, 57, whose employer also stopped her wearing necklaces with a cross; Gary McFarlane, 51, a marriage counsellor sacked after saying he might object to giving sex therapy advice to gay couples; and registrar Lillian Ladele who was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.

By contrast, such a prohibition may constitute indirect discrimination if it is established that the apparently neutral obligation it imposes results, in fact, in persons adhering to a particular religion or belief being put at a particular disadvantage.

"Accordingly, such an internal rule does not introduce a difference of treatment that is directly based on religion or belief, for the purposes of the directive".

The conclusion of the highest court of the 28-nation European Union amounts to a victory for French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a leading presidential contender, who wants to do away with all "ostentatious" religious symbols in the name of secularism.

In January this year, Austria's government agreed to ban full-face veils in public places such as courts and schools. "At a time when identity and appearance have become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less".