EU Companies Can Ban Headscarves As Part of Broader Policy, Court Adviser Says

Private companies have the right to ban employees from wearing headscarves at work, provided the prohibition is part of a broader policy prohibiting political or religious symbols, an adviser to the European Union’s top court said Tuesday.

The case at the European Court of Justice concerned Samira Achbita, a Muslim woman who worked as a receptionist for the Belgian arm of U.K. security firm G4S PLC. Three years into her employment at G4S, Ms. Achbita wanted to start wearing a headscarf at work and was subsequently dismissed. She challenged the decision in the Belgian courts, asking for damages. Belgium’s Court of Cassation, the appeals court where the case is now pending, made a request for a preliminary ECJ ruling to clarify EU antidiscrimination rules.

In her opinion Tuesday, Advocate General Juliane Kokott took the view a corporate ban on headscarves doesn’t constitute direct discrimination on religious grounds, provided that it is founded on a broader company policy prohibiting visible political, philosophical and religious symbols in the workplace. The opinion isn’t binding for the court’s judges, but is often a good pointer for the final ruling.

Ms. Kokott conceded that a ban may constitute indirect religious discrimination but “may be justified in order to enforce a legitimate policy of religious and ideological neutrality.” To ensure that no discrimination is taking place, national courts should check the proportionality of a ban and its broader context, such as the size and conspicuousness of the religious symbol in question as well as the national identity of, in this case, Belgium, she wrote.

According to the opinion, the ban in place at G4S appeared to be in line with EU law. “While an employee cannot ‘leave’ his sex, skin color, 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,” it said.