European Employers Are Allowed to Ban the Burka, Top Court Rules

European Employers Are Allowed to Ban the Burka, Top Court Rules

A company ban on wearing political or religious symbols - including a Muslim employee's headscarf - does not amount to direct discrimination, the European Court of Justice ruled Tuesday.

The ECJ has now given its judgments in both the Belgian case Achbita and the French case Bougnaoui.

In its findings, the court noted that "it is not, however, inconceivable" for a Belgian court to conclude Achbita was the victim of indirect discrimination.

The headscarf is an important religious symbol for Muslim women.

In the Belgian case, Samira Achbita, a receptionist at a security firm, was sacked in June 2006 for wearing an Islamic headscarf, banned in a new set of internal rules by her company that prohibited visible signs of their political, religious or philosophical beliefs.

But, the ruling said, such a move would have to be based on a consistent company policy, and could not be done at the behest of a customer.

However, in the French case, design engineer Asma Bougnaoui was sacked from IT consultancy Micropole after a customer complained his staff had been "embarrassed" by Bougnaoui's headscarf when she was on-site to give advice.

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The Court's ruling notes that any headscarf or similar ban needs to be part of a company-wide rule regulating dress for everyone.

"Certainly, many employees who are asking themselves questions about religious signs in their companies will look at these decisions and probably put in place internal regulations", said lawyer Claire Waquet, who represents the French woman in question.

The verdict has been issued following a rather long series of legal disputes over women's right to wear a headscarf at work.

Wearing religious symbols, especially the Muslim headscarf, has become a big political issue in some European nations.

Meanwhile, Bishop of Leeds Rt Revd Nicholas Baines said while the ECJ decision must be studied to establish its implications, "there is clearly more work to be done in relation to religious literacy". "And if they are in a position to do so, they should really try and get an indemnity or some kind of protection from claims that arise from candidates that are rejected because they would require under their religious beliefs to wear the hijab or a burka or a headscarf".

They ruled that the prohibition of wearing any visible political or religious symbols does not constitute direct discrimination.

The ECJ said European Union law does bar discrimination on religious grounds, but G4S's actions were based on treating all employees the same, meaning no one person was singled out for application of the ban. 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'.

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