Discrimination on the basis of religion? A new European decision

13 Jul 2017

The issue of discrimination based on religion continues to occupy the European courts.

In our newsflash of 14 March 2017 , we informed you that the Court of Justice had given its first ruling on discrimination based on religion. In a case involving a Belgian company, the Court of Justice had ruled that a neutrality policy may be constitutive of indirect discrimination, but acknowledged that it can be justified if it is the sole desire of the company to project a neutral image to third parties, which is a legitimate objective.

The European Court of Human Rights, for its part, also had the opportunity to adopt a position on the issue on 11 July 2017. The matter was not directly linked to the work environment because it concerned the prohibition of wearing in a public space clothing that covers the entire face. Nevertheless, the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights has certain aspects in common with that developed by the Belgian Court of Justice with regard to the policy of neutrality of an employer.

After analysing the objective of security, implying the ability to identify an individual, the Court stresses that it is aware of the fact that such a prohibition mainly concerns women of the Muslim faith who wish to wear full Islamic veils and that this entails a potential risk of stigmatisation.  However, the Court goes on to point out that Belgium intended to respond to a practice that it considered to be incompatible with the establishment of human relations essential to life in society. The Court concludes that the rules are objectively justified by these objectives. Accordingly, there is no violation of the prohibition of discrimination.

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This ruling demonstrates, if need be, the relevance and the sensitivity of the issue. If a policy of neutrality is set in place within a company, it seems important to us that the employer should pay attention to its communication to ensure that the reasons underlying this potential policy are clearly understood by all.