The European Court of Justice says stopping workers from wearing religious clothing can be justified in some circumstances – such as health and safety.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that organisations may ban employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, including clothing. This could relate to health and safety concerns around such items.
The decision was a response to cases brought by women in Germany: those of IX, a special needs carer, and MJ, a sales assistant and cashier. Both wore an Islamic headscarf at their workplaces.
IX’s employer, WABE eV, said wearing a headscarf did not correspond to the company’s position of political, philosophical and religious neutrality, and asked her to remove it. She refused, and was temporarily suspended on two occasions and given a warning.
MJ’s employer, MH Müller Handel, also requested that she remove her headscarf. After she refused, they transferred her to another post where she could wear it, then sent her home, instructing her not to attend work with conspicuous signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs. IX and MJ brought their cases to the German Labour Court.
IX sought to have her warning removed from her personal file. MJ sought compensation, claiming her employer’s request was invalid. MH Müller Handel appealed and the court referred the case to the ECJ, requesting an interpretation of Directive 2000/78, which establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation.
'The ECJ’s decision is consistent with previous cases on religious symbols'
The ECJ considered whether an organisation’s decision to prohibit workers from wearing visible signs of personal beliefs in workplaces amounts to direct or indirect discrimination against those who observe religious clothing rules. It also looked at what circumstances justified any difference in treatment based on religion or belief resulting from such prohibitions, and what should be taken into consideration in deciding if such actions were appropriate.
The ECJ ruled that the ‘prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes’.
The ECJ stressed that such a justification must correspond to a genuine need on the employer’s part. In MJ’s case, the court argued the employer’s request was fair because they had requested another employee to stop wearing a cross in the workplace.
It added that national courts need to appraise employees’ rights and interests, taking into account state legislation on freedom of religion. The ECJ’s decision is consistent with previous cases; it ruled in 2017 that companies may ban employees from wearing visible religious symbols under certain conditions.
What does this mean for health and safety?
The ECJ ruling means businesses can now legally ban the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious items without being accused of discrimination, as long as exceptions are not made for certain religions and there is justification to do so.
If you have concerns that staff attire affects their safety, you can request they refrain from wearing it. This may be particularly relevant where protective equipment is required. Requests to change a workplace dress code or uniform policy must be considered separately as there may be clothing requirements that relate to some roles and not others.
With thanks to Cedrec Information Systems for providing this article