Int’l human rights bodies warn ECJ ruling over headscarf ban ‘panders to prejudice’

International human rights organizations have warned that a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that EU companies can ban employees from wearing religious symbols, such as the Muslim headscarf, panders to prejudice, according to a report published by Euractiv.

The judgement by the ECJ comes amidst both the Dutch and French elections, where just such a headscarf ban has been an incendiary issue among right-wing populists. The ruling from the Luxembourg-based court affects all “religious or political symbols,” so potentially affects the Jewish kippa or Sikh turban equally – and comes with a nuanced proviso. However, ECJ ruling states that it does not constitute “direct discrimination” if a firm has an internal rule banning the wearing of “any political, philosophical or religious sign”.

The ECJ’s decison was in relation to a Belgian case dating back to 2003, where a female Muslim employee working as a receptionist for G4S was told she could not wear the Islamic veil. However, in a related case from France, the court ruled that a customer could not demand that a company employee not wear the Islamic headscarf when conducting business with them on its behalf.

Amnesty International called the rulings “disappointing” and warned that they set a dangerous precedent for employers to discriminate on religious grounds. The Director of Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia Program, John Dalhuisen, has said that “Today’s disappointing rulings by the European Court of Justice give greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women – and men – on the grounds of religious belief. At a time when identity and appearance has become a political battleground, people need more protection against prejudice, not less.”

He added that whilst “the court did say that employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients. But by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to precisely such prejudice. It is now for national governments to step up and protect the rights of their citizens.”

Euractiv reported that the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) has also reacted to the ECJ decision by describing it “nothing short of a Muslim ban applied only to women in private employment”, according to ENAR chair Amel Yacef. “This is an extremely worrying decision because it effectively bars all Muslim women wearing the headscarf from the workplace,” Yacef commented.

According to ENAR, the ruling in effect differentiates between religions which include visible expressions of belief and those which don’t. It will therefore also have an impact on other groups who express their religious beliefs through clothing – for example, Jewish kippa, the Sikh turban, or even possibly the Christian cross, although that may count as jewelry rather than ‘clothing’.

The group said the ruling “gave employers a licence to discriminate” and ignored “the societal context Muslim women face within Europe.”

March 14, 2017

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