Religious leaders criticise ‘troubling’ decision backing workplace headscarf ban
A court decision to allow employers to ban workers from wearing headscarves at work has been criticised as ‘troubling’ and a ‘backward step’ by religious leaders.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said it was “a sad day for justice and equality” as judges concluded that asking all employees to dress neutrally does not break religious discrimination rules.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that prohibiting the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.
In a statement, the MCB said: ‘At a time when populism and bigotry are at an all-time high, we fear that this ruling will serve as a green light to those wishing to normalise discrimination against faith communities.
‘Many will be worried that this action will prevent Muslim women who choose to wear the scarf from securing jobs. And it sends a message that we cannot accept a plural society that recognises and celebrates religious differences.
‘This is a backward step which people of all faiths and none should speak out against.’
The Church of England (CofE) said the case could have implications for all faiths.
A spokesman said: “This ruling raises significant questions about freedom of religion and its free expression. Whether it be Sikhism and the wearing of turbans and kara through to the wearing of a cross.
“In preferencing ‘freedom to conduct a business’ above the free expression of faith, the ruling potentially places corporate interest above those of the individual.
“Equally troubling is the assumption of ‘neutrality’ within the ruling. The imposition of blanket bans – whilst often seeking honourable outcomes – may represent a worldview based on dogmatic or ideological assumptions which may unjustly limit individual rights.”
The ECJ judgment was sparked by the case of a woman who was fired from her job as a receptionist at G4S in Belgium.
Samira Achbita was dismissed in June 2006 after insisting on wearing the Islamic headscarf at work.
She challenged her dismissal in the Belgian courts, which referred the case to the ECJ in relation to interpretation of an EU directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation.
The Court of Justice found that G4S’ internal rule refers to the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs and therefore does not constitute direct discrimination based on religion or belief.
A press summary setting out the ECJ’s findings 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.’
The summary added that such a ban may constitute ‘indirect discrimination’ if it results in certain religious groups being put at a particular disadvantage.
However, such indirect discrimination may be ‘objectively justified by a legitimate aim’ if the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary.
These conditions should be checked by the Belgian court, the ECJ added.
The chairwoman of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, Maria Miller, called for an urgent statement from the Government on the ruling, which she said could particularly penalise Muslim women at work.
She told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “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.”
Picture: A teacher stands at a blackboard. (Hannibal Hanschke/DPA/PA Images).Tags: Church of England, CofE, Commons Women and Equalities Committee, cross, ECJ, EU, European Court of Justice, headscarf, Maria Miller, MCB, Muslim Council of Britain, religious discrimination, Samira Achbita