terça-feira, 31 de maio de 2016

Judge at EU’s top court backs workplace ban on headscarf

European Court of Justice Follow
Judge at EU’s top court backs workplace ban on headscarf
Non-binding opinion upholds restriction as long as it applies to all symbols of religion
YESTERDAY by: Duncan Robinson in Brussels

Companies can ban Muslim staff from wearing headscarves as long as they also forbid other symbols of religion in the workplace, according to an opinion from the European Court of Justice.

The case stemmed from a complaint by a Muslim woman fired as a receptionist by the Belgian division of G4S for wearing a headscarf to work against the company’s rules.

Samira Achbita sued the security company in Belgium, where the courts referred the question of whether such bans were legal under EU rules to the ECJ.

In a non-binding opinion on Tuesday, a senior judge from the court argued that such bans were justifiable under certain circumstances. A final judgment will come later this year.

The case is the first of two landmark decisions expected this year on whether such bans are allowed under the bloc’s rules. It underlines the growing role played by the Luxembourg-based ECJ.

Once the preserve of arcane trade disputes and competition cases, the court rules increasingly on social issues after its remit was expanded by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 to give it oversight of issues such as security and fundamental rights. Unlike the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, decisions from the ECJ are binding upon national governments.

The ECJ is considering a separate case involving a French IT engineer dismissed after she refused to take off a veil at the request of a client.

Juliane Kokott, the advocate-general at the ECJ who wrote the opinion on the Belgian case, said: “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.”

Although such opinions do not amount to a final verdict, they are often followed by the court in its judgment.

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According to the opinion, companies must have a legitimate reason for banning symbols of religion, but these can vary. “The bar set for justifying differences of treatment based on religion is high but not insurmountable,” said the judge.

Companies such as G4S should be able to ensure “religious and ideological neutrality”, she wrote. Other reasons for banning religious symbols could include hygiene considerations as well as whether staff came face to face with customers. Banning headscarves in a call-centre would not be appropriate, argued the judge.

Such a prohibition would not be able to target specific religions, according to the opinion, and must apply across the board.

But in general, what counted as a necessary or legitimate ban on symbols of religion should be a matter for national courts, the advocate-general argued. A country’s “national identity” should be taken into account when determining whether bans on headscarves broke EU rules, which would give some countries more leeway than others.

For instance, countries such as France, which has a constitutional commitment to secularism, may be able to enforce stricter rules on banning religious items than other member states, without falling foul of EU rules, according to the opinion.

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