World Report

Top European court rules against religious symbols in the workplace

Europe’s top court has ruled that employers can bar workers from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. 

The judgement handed down by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) states that internal company rules can be shaped so as to require ‘neutral dress’ on the part of employees.

The case was centred on the experiences of two women, Asma Bougnaoui  in France and Samira Achbita in Belgium who were fired by their companies in relation to the wearing of Muslim headscarves. Samira Achbita, a receptionist, was sacked from her post in 2006 when, after three years with her company, she began to wear a Muslim headscarf while at work. 

Discrimination

Ms Achbita claimed she was being discriminated against on the grounds of discrimination, though it emerged in court that the company at the heart of the case had an unwritten rule banning all and any overt religious symbols in the workplace. When a Belgian court subsequently referred the case to the ECJ for full clarification, it was this latter element the European judges referred to in reaching their judgement, finding that as the rule covered “any manifestation of beliefs without distinction”, there was no discrimination against the plaintiff.

Ms Bougnaoui, meanwhile, was fired after a customer complained of her wearing a Muslim headscarf during meetings. “An employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate,” the judges stated, cautioning that such a right on the part of an employer is only guaranteed where rules around neutrality are imposed equally on all employees.

In short, the ruling means that a Christian employee can now be barred from wearing, for example, a cross necklace or lapel pin on the grounds of neutrality.

Faith groups have been quick to criticise the ruling, with the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt warning “This decision sends a signal to all religious groups in Europe”.