Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Firms Now Can Ban Workers From Wearing Religious Symbols Under EU Ruling


Firms can ban workers from wearing religious symbols under a landmark ruling by the European Union's top court.

The European Court of Justice gave its verdict today in the cases of two women who were dismissed for refusing to stop wearing Islamic headscarves.

The court said a ban on religious symbols was justified - if it covered all religions equally.

But the case arose directly because of the treatment of women wearing Islamic dress.

And it comes as a far-right party attempts to make gains in tomorrow's Dutch elections.

Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders once called for a tax on the traditional dress, causing outrage by dubbing it the "head rag". Controversial bans on Islamic dress have also been made in France.

Alan Price, director of employment law at Peninsula, said the ruling will apply to Britain at least until Brexit in 2019.

He added: "Whilst discrimination laws could potentially be reversed post-Brexit, it is unlikely that, in doing so, the Government will overturn a decision by the ECJ which gives flexibility to UK employers to have their own rules on dress codes and religious observance."

Tory MP Maria Miller warned the ruling “overturns important existing law” from the European Court of Human Rights.

The chair of Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee told the BBC: "I think it's clear that what a woman wears is her choice and it should never be the choice of a court either here in the UK or the European Court of Justice.

"The Government really does need to make sure it is absolutely clear to employers that it is not legitimate to simply say on a whim that people are not allowed to wear outward signs of religious belief - whether it's a headscarf or a cross - that there is a need for any such policies to be legitimate and to be clear on what grounds they would be found to be legitimate.

"Given the level of discrimination that particularly Muslim women face, I do think the Government should make a statement on this urgently."

Employment lawyer Sarah Peacock, of firm Blake Morgan, said the ruling was “significant” but firms would still have to “tread very carefully”.

"By its very nature, what is 'neutral' can be subjective, and down to a specifically Western cultural interpretation,” she added.

Today's verdict took its first step in 2003 thanks to Samira Achbita, a Muslim woman who was working as a receptionist for G4S in Belgium.

She was told not to wear a traditional headscarf because of a ban on "visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs".

She refused to stop wearing the headscarf and took her case to a court in Belgium after she was dismissed in 2006.

But the Court of Justice today said the rule was justified - because it was about all political and religious symbols, not just Islam.

"The Court of Justice finds that G4S’s internal rule refers to the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs and therefore covers any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction," the ruling said.

"The rule thus treats all employees of the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally.

"It is not evident from the material in the file available to the Court that that internal rule was applied differently to Ms Achbita as compared to other G4S employees.

"Accordingly, such an internal rule does not introduce a difference of treatment that is directly based on religion or belief, for the purposes of the directive."

The ruling went on that a rule like G4S's did not constitute "direct discrimination".

But it went less far in a second case, that of a French woman who was told her headscarf might "pose a problem" with some customers.

The ruling said that without a formal rule covering all religious symbols, simply wanting to "take account of the wishes of a customer" was not enough to ban headscarves.

It "cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination," the ruling said.



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