Workplace Bans on Religious Symbols and Dress

In ruling on a question concerning the interpretation of EU Directive 2000/78/EC, which establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that an employer's ban on the wearing of an Islamic headscarf, which arose from a private company's internal rule prohibiting the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious symbol in the workplace, did not constitute direct discrimination based on religion or belief within the meaning of the Directive (Achbita v G4S Solutions).

A Muslim woman was recruited by G4S, a private company that provides services to customers in the public and private sectors, as a receptionist. At that time, the company had an unwritten rule prohibiting the wearing of visible signs of an employee's religious, philosophical or political belief. She later informed her employer of her intention to wear an Islamic headscarf at work and was told that this would not be tolerated as it was contrary to the position of neutrality adopted by G4S in its dealings with its clients.

G4S subsequently amended its workplace regulations to include the ban. Ms Achbita was dismissed because she refused to comply with the ban and she took her case to the Belgian courts.

The CJEU confirmed that the concept of religion must be interpreted as covering both the fact of an individual's religious belief and their freedom to manifest that belief in public. Whilst an internal rule that applies to all employees in the same way does not introduce a difference of treatment based on religion or belief for the purposes of the Directive, the national court might conclude that such a rule nevertheless indirectly discriminated against persons of a particular religious belief if it put them at a particular disadvantage – unless the difference in treatment could be justified by a legitimate aim and the means of achieving that aim were appropriate and necessary.

Giving guidance on this aspect of its judgment, the CJEU went on to say that an employer's wish to present an image of neutrality was a legitimate aim where it applied only to employees in a customer-facing role.

The case will return to the national court for determination on the particular facts of the case.

A second case on this topic (Bougnaoui v Micropole SA) was brought by a French IT engineer who was dismissed after she refused to observe a principle of neutrality as regards her attire when dealing with clients. The situation arose following a customer complaint about her religious veil. The CJEU ruled that the willingness of an employer to adhere to a customer's wish not to have its services provided by a worker wearing a Muslim headscarf does not constitute a 'genuine and determining occupational requirement' that could rule out discrimination.