Need for clarity on wearing of religious signs

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has issued two preliminary rulings to guide the courts and tribunals of EU member states on the interpretation of EU anti-discrimination law. These rulings are at best controversial. They will give rise to more debate on which religious manifestations are acceptable in an increasingly secular society.

In the first case referred by the Belgian courts the ECJ ruled that firms should be free to prevent staff from wearing any garments making a religious or political statement. The Belgian courts now need to decide whether a Muslim receptionist who insisted on wearing a headscarf and was dismissed by her employer for disobeying company policy was treated in a discriminatory way.

In the second case the ECJ issued a ruling advising a French court that a design engineer that was fired from an IT consultancy firm after a customer complained that his staff had been ‘embarrassed’ by her headscarf while she was on their premises to give advice, suffered discrimination. The ECJ argued that this Muslim lady was ‘professionally competent’ and sacked only because she refused to remove her headscarf when her employer had no clear policy on the wearing of religious symbols.

Understandably, these apparently contradictory guidelines to EU national courts have worried employers and religious leaders in the same measure as it is now very doubtful  whether religious freedom and the rights of employers to define the dress code for their employees can be reconciled.

To add to the lack of clarity in the ECJ guidelines, it appears that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) takes a different view on the wearing of religious signs. Steve Peers, a professor of EU law at Essex University, said the latest ECJ ruling looks awkward when set against the ECHR judgment that wearing relig-ious symbols is “sometimes an employee’s right to manifest freedom of religion”. It seems that the ECJ failed to distinguish between freedom of religion and non-discrimination.

Joe Farrugia, director general of the Malta Employers Association, believes that “focus should be on promoting tolerance at the workplace” rather than taking a hard legal stand against the wearing of religious signs. It seems that up to now this dilemma has not affected Maltese employers. But it is bound to do so sooner or later.

Some religious leaders were shocked by this ruling. The Conference of European Rabbis said Europe was sending a clear message that its faith communities were no longer welcome.

The only people who seemed overjoyed by the ECJ rulings were the EU’s right parties. Gilbert Collard, an MP who supports Marine Le Pen’s Front National, claimed the ruling was an endorsement. “Even the ECJ votes Marine,” he wrote on Twitter.

Stephen Evans, the campaigns director of the National Secular Society in the UK said: “Religious and political neutrality is a perfectly reasonable aim and, where businesses and organisations wish to present themselves in such a way, this ruling demonstrates that this approach is perfectly consistent with equality and human rights law.”

The stark reality is that it is not just politicians that are fretting about the failure of social integration of minorities in the EU, that many argue is at the root of the security and political turmoil that is affecting the traditional political systems in Europe.

It seems that the ECJ in its rulings is also taking in consideration the public uproar against traditional political practices that are failing to guarantee people’s security and prosperity.


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