EU Advocate General OKs Workplace Headscarf Ban

     (CN) — An adviser to the European Union’s highest court said a company can ban an employee from wearing a headscarf as part of a general rule prohibiting all religious symbols in the workplace.
     Samira Achbita, a Muslim woman, worked as a receptionist for Belgian security company G4S. After three years at her job, she insisted that she should be allowed to come to work wearing a headscarf.
     Achbita was fired because her company prohibits the wearing of any visible religious, political or philosophical symbols.
     On Tuesday, EU Advocate General Juliane Kokott issued an advisory ruling finding that banning the wearing of a headscarf at work is legal, so long as there is no evidence of prejudice against any particular religion.
     “A company rule such as that operated by G4S could just as easily affect a male employee of Jewish faith who comes to work wearing a kippah, or a Sikh who wishes to perform his duties in a Dastar (turban), or male or female employees of a Christian faith who wish to wear a clearly visible crucifix or a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Jesus is great’ to work,” Kokott said.
     Kokott found that the ban may constitute indirect discrimination against religion, but that may be justified in order for a business to enforce a legitimate policy of religious neutrality.
     “In the present case, the headscarf ban is part of G4S’s policy of religious and ideological neutrality, which the undertaking imposed on itself. Such a policy of neutrality does not exceed the bounds of the discretion it enjoys in the pursuit of its business,” the ruling states.
     Given that Achbita interacts on a daily basis with a broad range of customers, “a policy of neutrality is absolutely crucial, not only because of the variety of customers served by G4S, but also because of the special nature of the work which G4S employees
     do in providing those services, which is characterized by constant face-to-face contact with external individuals and has a defining impact not only on the image of G4S itself but also and primarily on the public image of its customers,” according to Kokott.
     Kokott said G4S has the alternative option of moving an employee who wishes to wear a religious symbol to work to a back-office job. However, that would burden the company by requiring each employee’s case to be individually assessed.
     The advocate general noted that unlike sex, race or disability, which cannot be left “at the door,” an employee “may be expected to moderate the exercise of his religion in the workplace, be this in relation to religious practices, religiously motivated behavior or (as in the present case) his clothing.”
     An advocate general’s opinion is not binding on the EU Court of Justice but they are typically followed.

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