A crucial opinion, issued by a top European Court of Justice (ECJ) adviser, has once again brought into sharp focus the issue of religion and religious symbols in the workplace.
Juliane Kokott, an advocate general to the ECJ, said employers in the European Union might be able to ban Muslim staff from wearing headscarves to work but only if part of a general ban on all religious symbols.
Juliane Kokott, advocate general, said in her published opinion: “While an employee cannot ‘leave’ his sex, skin colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability ‘at the door’ upon entering his employer’s premises, he may be expected to moderate the exercise of his religion in the workplace.”
But this must involve “religious and ideological neutrality” and not be prejudicial against a particular religion. Although opinions are non-binding, lower courts do generally take them into account.
Religious Discrimination Cases
In 2008, an Employment Tribunal case in the UK awarded a Muslim teenager £4,000 for “injury to feelings” as a result of indirect discrimination under The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 after she was refused a job unless she removed her hijab, or headscarf. The candidate said it was important for her religion and non-negotiable.
In another case, in 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled a British Airways employee suffered discrimination at work over her Christian beliefs when she was banned from visibly wearing a cross on a chain.
The issue is a tricky one for businesses. Could business owners be nervous, in some cases, of staff wearing their hearts on their sleeves, especially when trying to attract clients?
It can be expensive for the business in terms of any award made. It can also cost it, in terms of PR because these sort of issues can make good newspaper copy.
Acas, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, points out that many employers find that being sensitive to the cultural and religious needs of their employees makes good business sense. CIPD (The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says managing diversity and inclusion successfully is essential to good people management because everyone is different.
In the 21st century, and in a nation known for its diversity, should the accommodation of individuals’ religious beliefs be so big a deal? It makes for interesting debate.