An advocate general at the European Court of Justice has said that companies should be free to ban Muslim women from wearing head scarves if they have a general policy barring all religious and political symbols.
This was said in the run up to a landmark ruling expected from the EU’s highest Court this year. The case involved a woman who worked as a receptionist for the company G4S. After working for the company for three years she decided to start wearing a headscarf for religious reasons. As a result the employee was dismissed given that she had contravened Company policy, which at the time was an unwritten rule.
The employee brought a claim for wrongful dismissal. This was dismissed by the lower courts and further on appeal. However it was referred to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to establish whether G4S had contravened the European Union’s anti-discrimination directive.
The Advocate General provided an indication that such a ban would not be deemed direct discrimination and could be justified in order to enforce a policy on religion and ideological neutrality. In arriving at this decision it was said that “whilst 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 his religion in the workplace.”
If the European Court of Justice’s final ruling agrees with that of the Advocate General, then this will be landmark decision. However, this is not the first time that the contentious issue has come before the European Courts. You may remember in 2013, a British Airways check in assistant claimed that she had been the victim of discrimination as her employer had prevented her from wearing a necklace with a cross in the workplace. The Court found in favour of the employee and held that her right to express her religion had been unfairly restricted.
However in the case of Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council , the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that an employer did not unlawfully discriminate against Mrs Azmi, a teaching support worker, by refusing to allow her to wear a veil in the classroom.
The employer had evidence that the children did not engage as well with Mrs Azmi when she was wearing her veil as when she was not, and that it impacted on her effectiveness in the role. The EAT held that, although the refusal to allow the claimant to weir a veil amounted to indirect discrimination, it was justified in the circumstances.
The decision from the European Court of Justice is expected in the next six months. If the Court agrees with the recommendation of the Attorney General then this will certainly pave the way for any future cases in this area. However, each case will undoubtedly turn on its facts and it is acknowledged that what will be counted as a necessary or legitimate ban on symbols of religion should be a matter for national courts.