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Employers are entitled to ban workers from wearing headscarves to work

Contributor: Emma O'Leary |
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The court ruled that any ban on the ‘visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign’ must be based on internal company rules requiring all employees to ‘dress neutrally’. It cannot be based on the wishes of a customer. From Emma O’Leary, employment law consultant for the ELAS Group.

The case was brought by a Belgian receptionist who was fired for wearing a headscarf to work. Samira Achbita had worked for security firm G4S for three years before she started wearing a headscarf to work; she was dismissed because the company bans the wearing of any visible religious, political and philosophical symbols. She had claimed that she was being discriminated against on the grounds of her religion but the case was dismissed by two courts. The case was then referred to the European Court of Justice for clarification on what is banned by EU anti-discrimination laws.

Juliane Kokott, Advocate General to the European Court of Justice said: “While an employee cannot ‘leave’ their sex, skin colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability at the door upon entering their employer’s premises, they may be expected to moderate the exercise of their religion in the workplace. Such a ban may be justified if it enables the employer to pursue the legitimate policy of ensuring religious and ideological neutrality.” Emma O’Leary, employment law consultant for the ELAS Group, says: “Religion is one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act however this ruling shows that companies can require their employees to restrict the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace. Whether this is a headscarf, cross or yarmulke it’s vital that any employers who wish to do this ensure that they impose a blanket ban on all religious symbols, rather than one which discriminates against any one religion.

In Northern Ireland this has been a widely accepted practice for some time to avoid conflict between the different community backgrounds and, whilst the ECJ accepted the policy could indirectly discriminate against Islam over other religions, in referring the case back to the relevant Belgian Court it concluded that companies should be allowed to prohibit headscarves as long as there is a general ban on all other symbols. This case is helpful in clarifying the point and is an extension of last week’s news regarding female attire at work.  If a company has a clear dress/appearance policy that is neutral in terms of gender, religion, politics etc. then it is likely to be acceptable if applied to all employees.”