A European Court of Justice ruling that companies may ban employees from wearing religious or political symbols in the workplace has met with a chorus of criticism from religious groups and anti-racism campaigners. The landmark ruling relates to cases brought before the court by two Muslim women, one in Belgium and one in France, who were fired from their jobs for refusing to remove their headscarves while at work. In the case of the Belgian woman, Samira Achbita, who was let go from her job as a receptionist for the security services company G4S, the court found that her dismissal was justified on the grounds that she failed to abide by a company policy against the wearing of religious symbols. In doing so the ECJ upheld the principle that companies have a right to impose such a ban so long as it applies to all employees regardless of their faith.
According to the court’s ruling G4S’s prohibition against the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs “treats all employees … in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally.”
In the second case, brought by Asma Bougnaoui, a design engineer for Micropole, a French IT company, the Court found that she had been subject to discrimination because there was no workplace ban against wearing religious symbols and was only fired after a customer complained that they were “embarrassed” by her headscarf when she was on their premises. The case hinged on whether “the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the services of that employer provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf” was sufficient grounds to dismiss the employee if they refused to remove the headscarf. The Court ruled that these were not sufficient grounds, establishing that where there is no internal prohibition against wearing religious symbols employees cannot be forced to remove them because of complaints by customers.
Religious bodies and rights groups have roundly condemned the ECJ’s ruling. In a press release, Amnesty International said: “…by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to … prejudice.”
According to the Islamic Human Rights Commission the ban “will … have an adverse impact on the job prospects of a community already reeling from the double whammy of racial and religious discrimination by effectively preventing many practising Muslims from gaining employment.”
While pointing out that in the UK Sikh employees have won the right to wear the Turban, bracelet and small sword associated with their religion, the Sikh Federation expressed its concern for their co-religionists on the continent saying: “Judges and politicians in mainland Europe should be ashamed they have so easily and quickly forgotten the 83,005 turban-wearing Sikhs who lost their lives and the 109,045 who were wounded for the freedoms we enjoy today in Europe.”
Secular groups, however, have voiced support for the ruling. Stephen Evans, the campaigns director at the National Secular Society said: “Religious and political neutrality can be a perfectly reasonable aim. This ruling demonstrates that this approach is consistent with equality and human rights law and that businesses and organisations who wish to present themselves in a neutral way are able to do so, provided their actions are fair and reasonable.”