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ECJ rules that it is not direct discrimination to ban the headscarf at work, but there are caveats.

BY Donald MacKinnon
Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

The European Court has ruled in favour of an employer who dismissed an employee who continued to wear a headscarf as an expression of her Muslim faith despite a rule stating that religious symbols were not permitted in the workplace.

The decision was based on the view that as long as all religious symbols were banned, it could not be argued that one particular group was being singled out for discrimination.

In the case of Achbita vs G4S the court ruled that the dismissal was fair as the aim of wanting a ‘neutral image’ was legitimate and that the employee had broken the unwritten rules prohibiting religious symbols. The court added that it is important that as G4S wanted to project the image of neutrality they need to look at why Ms Achbita could not be moved to a non-customer facing role.

The statement from the court read;

“The court of justice, finds that G4S’s internal rule refers to the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs and therefore covers any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction. The rule thus treats all employees to the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally”

The reaction to the decision has been varied. Some, like French Presidential candidate François Fillon praised the ruling, stating that it will help social cohesion and social peace in France. Unsurprisingly however, religious groups have been alarmed at the decision, with The Conference of European Rabbis saying that this ruling makes it clear that faith communities are no longer welcome in Europe. Maryam H’madoun from the Open Society of Justice Initiative said that it discriminated against people who wanted to express their religion in their dress. She went on to say that although this will affect all religions it will disproportionately affect Muslim women, nearly all of whom wear a head scarf with varying degrees of facial coverage.  

Campaigners for a secular society believe that the Court’s decision was sensible as they think that when this law is applied equally to all it can’t be reasonably argued that it constitutes less favourable treatment for any particular group.

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