(CN) – A Romanian football club needs to show it does not promote discrimination after its outspoken owner went on a homophobic tirade, Europe’s highest court ruled Thursday.
The ruling comes after Accept – an organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Romania – complained to the National Council for Combating Discrimination about Romanian soccer club FC Steaua and one of its owners.
Back in 2010, Steaua’s owner, millionaire George “Gigi” Becali, blocked the club from accepting the transfer of a player he believed was gay.
Becali told reporters that he would rather dissolve the club than allow a gay to play for Steau. He then clarified that he would pull in a junior player instead of hiring the star, referred to as “X” in the Court of Justice’s ruling .
“Not even if I had to close [Steaua] down would I accept a homosexual on the team,” Becali told reporters. “Obviously people will talk, but how could anyone write something like that and, what’s more, put it on the front page.”
Referring to football player X, Becali said: “maybe he’s not a homosexual … but what if he is? I said to an uncle of mine who didn’t believe in Satan or in Christ. I said to him: ‘Let’s say God doesn’t exist. But suppose he does? What do you lose by taking communion? Wouldn’t it be good to go to Heaven?’ He said I was right. A month before he died he took communion. May God forgive him. There’s no room for gays in my family and [Steaua] is my family. It would be better to play with a junior rather than someone who was gay. No one can force me to work with anyone. I have rights just as they do and I have the right to work with whomever I choose.”
Becali also denied that his comments were discriminatory.
“No one can force me to work with anyone,” he told reporters. “I have rights just as they do and I have the right to work with whoever I choose. Even if God told me in a dream that it was 100 percent certain that X wasn’t a homosexual I still wouldn’t take him. Too much has been written in the papers about his being a homosexual. Even if [Player X’s current club] gave him to me for free I wouldn’t have him! He could be the biggest troublemaker, the biggest drinker … but if he’s a homosexual I don’t want to know about him.”
Becali has a long history of spewing anti-gay rhetoric. In 2006, he backed a campaign to “finish off all homosexuals in Romania,” and a year later told journalists that “gays must be kept in enclosures.”
But Becali – a former member of the European Parliament and now a minister for Romania’s parliament – has not limited offensive comments to the LGBT community. In 2008, he called a black TV host a “monkey” and said women “have no more value” after childbirth.
Romania’s National Council for Combating Discrimination cleared the club of Accept’s claims that it did nothing to distance itself from Becali’s hate speech.
It found that Becali’s ownership did not make him an employer or responsible for recruitment, so his statements did not fall within the sphere of employment discrimination.
Finding that Becali’s statements did constitute harassment, however, the council slapped him with a warning.
Accept appealed to the Bucharest court of appeal, which in turn asked the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice to weigh in on the parameters of employment discrimination.
After noting that it has no jurisdiction over Romanian law pertaining to sexual orientation discrimination, the European high court chastised FC Steaua for not distancing itself from Becali’s comments.
“A defendant employer cannot deny the existence of facts from which it may be inferred that it has a discriminatory recruitment policy merely by asserting that statements suggestive of the existence of a homophobic recruitment policy come from a person who, while claiming and appearing to play an important role in the management of that employer, is not legally capable of binding it in recruitment matters,” the ruling states. “In a situation such as that at the origin of the dispute in the main proceedings, the fact that such an employer might not have clearly distanced itself from the statements concerned is a factor which the court hearing the case may take into account in the context of an overall appraisal of the facts.”
The court also criticized the Romanian council’s assessment in the original proceedings.
“Contrary to the CNCD’s assertions in both its written and oral submissions to the court, the fact that a professional football club might not have started any negotiations with a view to recruiting a player presented as being homosexual does not preclude the possibility of establishing facts from which it may be inferred that that club has been guilty of discrimination,” the justices wrote.
Becali’s comments and FC Steaua’s inaction “are capable of amounting to ‘facts from which it may be presumed that there has been … discrimination’ as regards a professional football club, even though the statements concerned come from a person presenting himself and being perceived in the media and among the general public as playing a leading role in that club without, however, necessarily having legal capacity to bind it or to represent it in recruitment matters,” according to the ruling.
FC Steaua bore the responsibility of proving that its recruitment policies are not discriminatory toward gay players – especially in light of Becali’s public statements, the court added.
“In the overall assessment carried out by the national body or court hearing the matter, a prima facie case of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation may be refuted with a body of consistent evidence,” the opinion states. “As Accept has submitted, such a body of evidence might include for example a reaction by the defendant concerned clearly distancing itself from public statements on which the appearance of discrimination is based, and the existence of express provisions concerning its recruitment policy aimed at ensuring compliance with the principle of equal treatment within the meaning of EU law.”
Expressing its displeasure with the warning that the council issued Becali, the court said it amounted to “a purely symbolic sanction.”
At this point, however, Romania’s statute of limitations might prevent a larger punishment, according to the ruling.
“It is for the national court to ascertain whether such is the case regarding the rules at issue in the main proceedings and, if necessary, to interpret national law as far as possible in light of the wording and the purpose of that directive in order to achieve the result envisaged by it,” the judges wrote.
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