Company Bans on Religious Wear Cleared by EU Court

(CN) – 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.

Samira Achbita, a Muslim woman, began working for Belgian security firm G4S in 2003. At the time, the company had an unwritten rule prohibiting employees from wearing visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs.

Three years later, however, Achbita informed the company that she intended to begin wearing the headscarf required by her faith. Managers told Achbita she could not, as the headscarf would run afoul of the company’s position of neutrality when dealing with its customers.

G4S then adopted a formal written ban on employees wearing visible signs of their beliefs. Within a day, the company fired Achbita for willfully violating the company’s new policy.

She sued, and the Belgian court hearing her case asked the European Court of Justice whether the company’s rule amounted to direct discrimination and violated EU laws on equal treatment in employment.

In a 5-page preliminary ruling, the EU high court said the company’s rule as written applied to everyone equally and therefore does not amount to direct discrimination. While it’s possible the rule is indirectly discriminatory, the court said it may be justified as the company’s aim – to project an image of neutrality to its customers – falls within the constitutional right to freely conduct business.

However, the Luxembourg-based court also advised the Belgian court to determine whether the ban only applied to employees who interact with customers. If that was the case, the high court said the Belgian court must consider whether G4S might have accommodated Achbita by offering her a position where she didn’t come into contact with customers.

The EU high court came to a similar conclusion Tuesday in a case from France, where a Muslim woman was fired after a customer complained about her headscarf and the company asked her repeatedly to leave it at home for the sake of neutrality.