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Can employers ban hijabs at work?

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has decided that it is not an act of religious discrimination for an employer to ban an employee from wearing an Islamic headscarf at work provided that the employer has a “neutral dress” policy in place.

The case in question centred around a Belgian Muslim employee who informed her employer that she was going to start wearing an Islamic headscarf at work. The employer, G4S Secure Solutions NV, told her that wearing a headscarf would contravene its rules on neutrality when in the company of customers and subsequently amended its dress code to the effect that employees were not permitted to wear any visible symbols connected to political, philosophical or religious beliefs. The employee claimed this was religious discrimination.

Upon analysis, the ECJ has decided that an employer is allowed to have a policy which instils a ‘neutral’ dress code on its employees, in effect banning Islamic headscarves at work. This ban would not represent direct religious discrimination. However, that is not the only risk with this type of policy and the Court indicated that there may still be a risk of indirect religious discrimination. Employers who have, or wish to implement, a dress code policy of the same type as the employer in this case should ensure it is drafted and implemented with caution.

Employers with a dress code aimed at ensuring neutrality must, therefore, be sure that the policy applies to all employees within the organisation and avoid singling out people of a particular religion for different treatment etc. If the effect of a policy was to treat some employees differently from others based on their religion, this is likely to make a dress code based on neutrality directly discriminatory towards those groups who are adversely affected by it.

In addition, the reason behind a blanket ban on political, philosophical or religious manifestations through dress is a key element when deciding whether the policy is indirectly discriminatory.

This is because indirect discrimination is capable of being objectively justified. Indirect discrimination occurs in the situation when a rule is applied to everyone equally but the imposition of the rule disproportionately affects members of a particular group or groups more than others, and the employer does not pass the objective justification test. There must be a legitimate aim, and the employer’s measures must be a proportionate way of achieving the aim.

In this case, the aim of the employer to project an image of neutrality when in the company of customers was considered to be legitimate.

The Court suggested that employers may need to look at ways to accommodate employees who still wish to wear religious items of clothing at work, for example, moving them to another role which did not involve contact with customers.

The Court was clear, however, in its message that the neutrality policy must be that of the employer itself. Relying simply upon the wishes of a customer not to come into contact with employees who wore items of religious clothing as a reason for a ban would not be sufficient to defend a claim of discrimination.

Commentators have immediately taken to social media to give their opinion on the decision. Some express concerns that they will be driven out of work by employers who impose a ban on headscarves, saying that in the event they had to choose between work and their headscarf, they would give up work.

It is important to note that a neutral dress policy would not only affect Muslim employees who wanted to wear a headscarf; there are several other items of clothing and jewellery which are connected to religion. Christian employees who wanted to wear a cross on a necklace; Sikh employees wearing turbans and Jewish men wearing skullcaps may also be affected. Ostensibly, this employer’s policy would have to ban them all; to allow some but not others would likely constitute direct religious discrimination.

In addition, it should not be forgotten that the employer’s dress code policy, in this case, also banned symbols connected to political and philosophical beliefs. This could be, for example, badges demonstrating allegiance to a political party or its policies.