European Court backs workplace ban on headscarves and religious symbols

Employers can prevent Muslim female employees from wearing religious headscarves, so long as the ban is based on an organisation-wide policy forbidding all religious and political symbols, a lawyer of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled.
Such a ban would not be deemed ‘direct discrimination’ and could be “justified in order to enforce a policy of religious and ideological neutrality,” according to the non-binding decision.
The Belgian case, which was referred to the ECJ, involved Samira Achbita, a Muslim secretary who worked for security firm G4S and was subsequently 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.
Announcing the decision, Juliane Kokott, an advocate general of the ECJ, said: “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, be this in relation to religious practices, religiously motivated behaviour or (as in the present case) his clothing.”
However, Dr Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, said: "The challenge for Europe is not only to respond better to employment inequalities and discrimination but also to ensure Muslims – and indeed other religious believers and ethnic minorities – feel confident and included in being European."

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. 

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