“An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination,” The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said on Tuesday. Two employees in Belgium and France had brought the case to the ECJ after being dismissed for refusing to remove their headscarves, which did not cover the face.
The first case was referred to The European Court of Justice by the Belgian courts when Samira Achbita was fired in June 2006 for refusing to take off her scarf. She was working for three years as a receptionist for the Belgian branch of G4S, the London-listed outsourcing and security company when she decided to start wearing a headscarf at work for religious reasons. The company said she had broken unwritten rules prohibiting religious symbols. In this case the court of justice said it was not discrimination. “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,” it said.
The second case happened in France when a design engineer for Micropole was asked to stop wearing her headscarf to maintain neutrality after a client’s complaint but refused and was dismissed. The court's advocate’s advice in the French case was that a rule banning employees from wearing religious symbols when in contact with customers was discrimination, particularly when it only applied to Islamic headscarves.
There are certainly many opponents but also supporters to the EU court’s decision. François Fillon, the conservative candidate in the French presidential election, hailed the ruling as “an immense relief” that would contribute to “social peace”. Stephen Evans, the campaigns director at the National Secular Society in the UK, said: “Where a ban on employees wearing religious or political symbols is founded on a general company rule of religious and political neutrality, and where that rule is applied equally to all, it can’t be realistically argued that that this constitutes ‘less favorable treatment’.”
On the other hand, European rabbis said the court had worsened rising hate crime by sending a message that “faith communities are no longer welcome”. Maryam H’madoun at the Open Society Justice Initiative said she was disappointed by the ruling, which she described as discrimination against people who chose to show their religion in their dress. “It will lead to Muslim women being discriminated in the workplace, but also Jewish men who wear kippas, Sikh men who wear turbans, people who wear crosses. It affects all of them, but disproportionately Muslim women,” she said.
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