Banning Headscarves and Discrimination

Banning Muslims’ headscarves at work may not be discriminatory

Following a recent case, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that it is sometimes acceptable for employers to refuse to allow female Muslims to wear headscarves in the workplace. This is on the important condition that the employers implement a company-wide policy of banning all religious and political symbols, including crucifix necklaces, turbans and clothing which states allegiance to a political party rather than singling out any one belief. The employer would also have to justify why it believed that allowing such expression of opinion would negatively affect its business.

In the case of Achbita and Another v G4S Secure Solutions NV, Ms Achbita, a Muslim in Belgium, decided after three years’ employment as a secretary that she wanted to wear a headscarf at work, as well as outside of work. Her employer refused to allow it, she wore it anyway and was dismissed. The following day, the Company updated its dress code to ban any signs of political, philosophical or religious belief. An advocate general of the ECJ stated, “While an employee cannot ‘leave’ his sex, skin colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability ‘at the door’ upon entering his employer’s premises, he may be expected to moderate the exercise of his religion in the workplace.” This opinion is not binding and final judgement in this case is expected later in 2016.

We are also awaiting the judgement of a similar case: Bougnaoui and Another v Micropole Univers. In this case, a French Muslim engineer insisted on wearing her headscarf during client visits, despite her employer’s insistence that she removed it after clients complained.

Employers are still advised to proceed with caution and to bear in mind the distinction between a religious belief (which is protected by law) and conduct (which may sometimes be modified to suit the needs of the business). It is also interesting to note that those employees without a religion or political affiliation could be subject to discrimination for their lack of beliefs.