Can a negative reaction to a refusal to shake hands constitute discrimination on grounds of religion?

The internet is riddled with articles detailing the importance of a good handshake, but just how vital is it for the proper performance of your duties at work? A Swedish, Muslim, woman has been awarded compensation after her job interview for a role as an interpreter was terminated when, due to religious grounds she would not shake hands with her potential employer.

When the male interviewer extended his hand in greeting as is traditional in Europe, Farah Alhajeh, 24, instead placed her hand over her heart. The response was her way of greeting the interviewer in a way that also aligned with her religious beliefs.

Some Muslims avoid physical contact with members of the opposite sex (except for in cases of emergency, or when there is a ‘special relationship’ present – i.e. the individual in question is their partner or a blood relative). This is why Ms Alhajeh offered an alternate greeting – there was no such special relationship between Ms Alhajeh and her interviewer, so she placed her hand on her heart, as is commonly done by those who share the same belief.

In handing down the judgement, the Swedish Labour Court (similar to the Employment Tribunal in the United Kingdom), had to balance the employer’s interest with the individual’s right to bodily integrity and the importance for the state to maintain protection for religious freedom.

The company’s main argument hinged on the fact that it was an established workplace policy that men and women were to be treated equally, and as such they could not allow a staff member to refuse a handshake based on gender.

Dismissal for beard that was “too long” and “too religious” upheld

Back in December 2015 I commented on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Ebrahimian v France, which concerned the termination of employment of a health worker at a hospital who refused (on religious grounds) to remove her headscarf when she was on duty at work. By way of a brief recap, state secularism (or laïcité) is a strongly protected principle in French society. That is why you will not hear hymns or carols sung in French schools and there was a big fuss last month when a village commune tried to place a nativity scene in the square in front of the local mairie. It was determined that Ms Ebrahimian, by wearing a symbol of religious affiliation, was breaching her duties as a public official. In its judgment the court held that the non-renewal of her employment contract did amount to an interference with her right to manifest her religion, contrary to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that interference had the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, pursuant to French law. Accordingly, her claim failed.

A similar case has now surfaced in the Versailles administrative Court of Appeal. A trainee doctor of Egyptian origin was dismissed from his job at Saint-Denis hospital centre in Seine-Saint-Denis because his “imposing” beard constituted an “ostentatious display of religious belief”. The individual concerned declined to deny or confirm that his appearance was intended to be a way to “demonstrate his religious activity”.  On 19 December, the Court of Appeal supported the decision, noting that although the wearing of a beard “even long”, cannot “on its own” cannot (necessarily) constitute a sign of religious affiliation, the “circumstances” entitled the hospital to at as it did.

Is requesting a holiday from July to September manifestation of a religious belief that is capable of protection?

Where do you draw the line with protection of workers on the grounds of religious or philosophical belief? It is a question that I have been addressing in this blog ever since protection from discrimination on these grounds was first introduced. It is logical that there is a limit. For example, if a person’s belief…

Does a ban on wearing headscarves amount to direct discrimination?

In a somewhat surprising decision, given the views expressed in some other recent cases, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has decided that a ban on wearing headscarves at work does not (necessarily) constitute direct discrimination with reference to religion or belief. In  Achbita, Centrum voor Gelijkheid van kansen en voor racismebestrijding v…

Judgment published in “gay cake” appeal

In May 2015 I reported the decision of District Judge Brownlie, sitting in the Northern Ireland County Court in Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd and others, otherwise known as the “gay cake case”. I pointed out at the time that the District Judge was given a very tough call in essentially being asked to…

Indirect religious discrimination

Can a worker be dismissed for refusing to leave a partner convicted of unrelated criminal conduct with which the dismissed worker was not involved?   This question was considered in the recent case of Pendleton v Derbyshire County Council & Anor (Religion or Belief Discrimination) [2016] UKEAT 0238 15 2903.  The facts of this case were…

Victim of caste discrimination awarded £184,000

The Equality Act 2010 does not include specific protection for individuals who are victims of discrimination as a result or associated with their caste. However, it does include provisions for protection from caste discrimination to be added at some time in the future. Nonetheless a claim based on such discrimination has been brought successfully by…