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European workplace ruling is ‘denial of religious freedom’

17 March 2017

© ADF International

“Neutral space”: the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols by employees does not constitute direct discrimination

“Neutral space”: the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols by employees does not co...

A RULING from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) allowing employers legally to prevent their employees' wearing “any political, philosophical or religious sign” or garment in the workplace, including crucifixes, turbans, and headscarves, denies the “neutrality” of the freedom of religious expression, faith leaders and campaigners have warned.

The ruling, given on Tuesday, addressed the case of Samira Achbita, a Muslim, who was dismissed in 2006, for wearing a headscarf during office hours, from the security company G4S, where she worked as a receptionist, in Belgium (News, 3 June 2016).

G4S argued that wearing a headscarf in the workplace did not reflect the religious and political “neutrality” of the company. The previously unspoken rule was written into G4S contracts on Ms Achbita’s return to work, after a period of illness, later that year.

The ECJ ruling states: “An internal rule [in G4S] of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination. . . [The rule] treats all employees of the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally.”

The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, told the Church Times on Thursday that he had been “surprised and concerned” by the ECJ ruling, particularly given the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2013 against British Airways, after the company sought to prevent a Christian stewardess, Nadia Eweida, from wearing a crucifix (News, 15 January 2013).

“Far from upholding the EU’s famous slogan of ‘unity in diversity’ it seems to be allowing private employers to be intolerant towards diversity,” Bishop Innes said. “Previous jurisprudence of that court has only allowed the banning of religious symbols or clothing for health and safety reasons, or in the public service in constitutionally secular states.

“Dealing with difference within civil society is currently a critical issue across Europe. As Anglicans, we have a long history of tolerating difference, the suppression of freedom of expression by trying to make difference invisible will only stoke the fires of extremism.”

He agreed with Sajjad Karim, a member of the British Conservative group in the European Parliament, who said that the ruling, “makes Muslim women and people from other religious groups have to choose between their fundamental right to religious expression and access to the labour market. This is unacceptable and will only isolate people with religious convictions who wish to express their belief.”

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said this week that the judgment “shows that the denial of freedom of religion is not a neutral act, contrary to how it might be portrayed. There is no neutral space. Furthermore, it illustrates how far we have to go as a secular society in working out what freedom of expression actually means.

“Secondly,” he said, “it once again illustrates the problem in a ‘rights culture’ of whose rights take priority in the hierarchy when rights collide — and according to which criteria they should be judged. There is clearly more work to be done in relation to religious literacy.”

A spokesman at Church House, Westminster, agreed that the assumption of neutrality in the ruling was “troubling”, since the “imposition of blanket bans — whilst often seeking honourable outcomes — may represent a world-view based on dogmatic or ideological assumptions which may unjustly limit individual rights”.

He continued: “In preferencing ‘freedom to conduct a business’ above the free expression of faith, the ruling potentially places corporate interest above those of the individual.”

The ECJ also referred to the case of Asma Bougnaoui, a design engineer, who was dismissed from an IT consultancy firm, Micropole, in France, after a customer complained that his own staff had been “embarrassed” by her headscarf while she was giving advice on their premises. It ruled that her dismissal could be considered discriminatory, as customers of a company that had no internal policy barring religious symbols could not demand their removal.

Amnesty International said in a statement that, while the court ruled that employers were not free to “pander to the prejudices of their clients”, its ruling that company policies could prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality “opened a back door to precisely such prejudice”.

Representatives of other faiths agreed. The President of the Conference of European Rabbis, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, said on Tuesday: “Europe is sending a clear message: its faith communities are no longer welcome. Political leaders need to act to ensure that Europe does not isolate religious minorities and remains a diverse and open continent.”

The head of research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Arzu Merali, said: “This gives legal cover to what is essentially an ongoing hate campaign to make Muslims second-class citizens in Europe. It will only increase feelings of marginalisation and disenfranchisement in Muslim communities.”

The ruling added to a “growing list of prohibitions” in France, Belgium, Bulgaria, and parts of Switzerland, targeting the Muslim female practice of wearing the veil in public, he said.

The French government banned the wearing of headscarves in schools in 2004 (News, 13 February 2004). And, in August, more than 30 French mayors, backed by the French government, banned the burkini — a full-body swimsuit preferred by Muslim women — before a French court ruled that the action was illegal.

The right-wing French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has said that she would ban the Islamic headscarf should she be elected this year, while another presidential candidate, the former Prime Minister François Fillon, who has promised administrative controls on Islam in France, welcomed the ruling as “an immense relief” for both companies and their employees, The Guardian reported.

The right-wing populist party in Germany, Alternative für Deutschland, also welcomed the judgment.

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