EU Court of Justice Rules Employers Can Impose “Religious Neutrality” on Employees

Is a private employer allowed to prohibit an employee from wearing a religious symbol such as a headscarf in the workplace? Is it permitted to dismiss an employee who refuses to comply with such rules restricting the wearing of religious symbols?

In a preliminary ruling, the European Court of Justice has answered both questions in the affirmative, depending on the context. It held that an internal rule of an employer that prohibits all employees from visible wearing of any religious, political or philosophical sign does not constitute discrimination. However, the court also clarified that where no such internal rule exists, it is not a legitimate occupational requirement to demand employees remove religious head coverings in response to customers’ requests for “neutrality”.

The court was asked to provide a preliminary ruling on the proper interpretation of a Council Directive that established a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation. A female employee was fired because she wore a headscarf when interacting with a customer; the customer later complained that the wearing of a veil had “upset” a number of its own employees. The woman received a dismissal letter stating the company requires “discretion” as regards the “expression of the personal preferences” of its employees.

The Court held that Article 4(1) of Directive 2000/78 must be interpreted as meaning that the the wishes of a customer not to receive services from a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered a genuine and determining occupational requirement within the meaning of that provision. However, it did recognize that an employer could prohibit visual signs of religious belief as a bona fide occupational requirement in pursuit of a policy of “political, philosophical and religious neutrality” in its customer relations.Although it may constitute indirect discrimination, the court indicated  that discrimination could be appropriate and justified.