Austrian Holiday Unfairly Favors Protestants, EU Court Rules

(CN) – Although the majority of Austrians identify as Roman Catholic, national law makes Good Friday a paid holiday only for people who belong to Protestant churches. But the EU high court ruled Tuesday that until Austria amends its law to “restore equal treatment,” Good Friday must be a paid holiday for all private employees.

The preliminary ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by an employee of the private detective firm Cresco Investigations, in which he complained he was forced to work on Good Friday. The man does not belong to any of the churches whose members can claim Good Friday as a paid holiday under Austrian law: The Evangelical Churches of the Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions, the Old Catholic Church – a Protestant-leaning sect that broke off from the Roman Catholic church in the 1850s – and the United Methodist Church.

Under Austrian law, members of these churches can practice their religion on a holiday of particular importance to them without having to ask their employers for the day off and receive holiday pay for it. But the Austrian Supreme Court, which is hearing the Cresco employee’s lawsuit, asked the European Court of Justice whether the law violates the EU’s ban on religious discrimination.

It does, the Luxembourg-based court ruled.

“The grant of public holiday pay to an employee who is a member of one of those churches and is required to work on Good Friday is dependent only on whether that employee is formally a member of one of those churches. Accordingly, that employee is entitled to such public holiday pay even if he worked on Good Friday without feeling any obligation or need to celebrate that religious festival. Therefore, his situation is no different from that of other employees who worked on Good Friday without receiving such a benefit,” the EU high court wrote.

“It follows that the national legislation at issue in the main proceedings has the effect of treating comparable situations differently on the basis of religion. This therefore amounts to direct discrimination on grounds of religion within the meaning of [EU law].”

And while the Austrian law in question gives employees who don’t belong to the churches in question the right to request a paid day off to practice their own religious rites, it goes too far in its effort to restore equal treatment according to the EU court.

The only thing to be done until the Austrian government amends the law, according to the justices, is to make Good Friday a paid holiday for all private employees so that all employees are treated exactly the same – regardless of religious affiliation.

Tuesday’s ruling is binding on the Austrian court, which must resolve the case in light of the Court of Justice’s finding.

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