Saturday, 17 July 2021

Headscarves at work: the Court of Justice clarifies when employers can ban them


Professor Ronan McCrea, University College London


Four years ago in the cases of G4S and Micropole, the Court of Justice issued its first major rulings on the compatibility of workplace policies that restrict the wearing of religious symbols by employees with the Framework Directive on discrimination in employment (Directive 2000/78).


In these rulings, the Grand Chamber of the Court held that the imposition on employees of a policy of visible neutrality of religion or belief amounted to indirect rather than direct discrimination provided that it was consistently applied to all forms of religion or belief. Policies that targeted the symbols of a particular faith, on the other hand, were to be regarded as directly discriminatory.


An obligation of visible neutrality, the Court held could, if sufficiently narrowly tailored, satisfy the test for indirectly discriminatory measures (legitimate aim, pursued by proportionate and necessary means) but was unlikely to be able to meet the test for directly discriminatory measures (genuine and determining occupational requirement).


The judgement was criticised both in the media and by some legal scholars. Eleanor Spaventa worried that the invocation of the right to run a business in Article 16 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights as a reason favouring the compatibility of restrictions on employee dress meant that Member States may not be able to take an approach more protective of religious freedom. She also argued that the Court had paid insufficient attention to the fact that neutrality rule might have a more pronounced effect on those of particular ethnic background or a particular gender. Similarly, Joseph Weiler faulted the Court, inter alia, for failing to provide adequate reasons as to why the goal of neutrality was a sufficiently weighty goal to justify the third limb of the proportionality test.


When these issues came before the Court again this year in the form of Article 267 references in two cases in Germany, the cases were allocated to the Grand Chamber. However, this was not an indication of a change of approach on the part of the Court. This week’s ruling in the (joined) cases, largely reaffirms the approach previously adopted by the Court although the ruling does provide some additional material that, at least partially, addresses some of the concerns of its critics.


Both cases related to employees disciplined for wearing a hijab at work. In IX v WABR eV (‘IX’) WABE, a non-denominational provider of child care services disciplined an employee who worked as a special needs carer for violating its internal rule that required those whose roles involved dealing with parents and children to observe strict political, religious and philosophical neutrality ‘in order to guarantee the children’s individual and free development with regard to religion, belief and politics’. This rule was not applied to those whose work did not bring them into contact with parents and children.


In MH Müller Handels GmbH v MJ (‘MJ’) a woman employed as a cashier and sales assistant was disciplined for wearing a hijab at work in violation of a workplace rule that prohibited the wearing of ‘conspicuous, large-sized signs of any political, philosophical or religious beliefs’.


There was some overlap in relation to the questions submitted by the national court in each case. In IX the Arbeitsgericht Hamburg asked the Court of Justice:


(a) Whether an instruction not to wear visible signs of religion or belief from an employer to an employee who, due to her Muslim faith wears a headscarf, should be regarded as direct or indirect discrimination ‘on grounds of religion and/or gender’ (Confusingly, the English version of the judgment refers to discrimination ‘on grounds of gender’. The French version refers to discrimination ‘fondée sur le sexe’ while the English version of the relevant Directive (Directive 2006/54) refers to ‘less favourable treatment on grounds of sex’. However, the Court refused to engage on the issue of discrimination on this ground on the basis that the referring court had limited its question to Directive 2000/78 which does not address this matter).


(b) Whether indirect discrimination on grounds of religion and/or gender can be justified when the employer is seeks to impose a neutrality requirement in order to meet ‘the subjective wishes of its customers’,



(c) Whether the Directive 2000/78 and Article 16 of the Charter preclude national rules that grant greater protection to freedom of religion or belief (in the light of the provisions of Article 8(1) of the Directive that allows Member States to have provisions more favourable to the principle of equal treatment than those laid down in the Directive.


In addition to asking whether national rules more favourable to equal treatment on grounds of religion were permitted (question c above), in MJ the Bundesarbeitsgericht also asked the Court of Justice:


(d) Whether the requirements of the directive in relation to justifying indirect discrimination are met by a rule that pursues a policy of neutrality by prohibiting only prominent and large-sized symbols of religion or belief (rather than all such signs).


In relation to question (a), the CJEU reiterated its previous ruling that the prohibition on discrimination on grounds of religion or belief applies equally to religious and non-religious philosophical and spiritual beliefs and that ‘since every person may have a religion or belief’ a rule that covers any manifestation of religion or belief without distinction ‘treats all workers of the undertaking in the same way by requiring them, in a general and undifferentiated way, inter alia, to dress neutrally’. Accordingly, such a rule does not constitute direct discrimination notwithstanding that such a rule is capable of causing ‘particular inconvenience’ to workers ‘who observe religious precepts requiring certain clothing to be worn’. In IX the Court noted that an employee wearing a cross had been required to remove it, something that appeared to confirm that the rule was applied across the board (though it noted that verification of this matter was a factual issue for the national court).


Having concluded that the rule in IX was potentially indirectly discriminatory, the Court went on to reiterate its finding in G4S Solutions such the indirect discrimination could be justified in the light of Article 16 of the Charter ‘in particular where the employer involves in its pursuit of [the neutrality] aim, only those workers who are required to come into contact with the employer’s customers.’ However, it added a slight gloss on the G4S ruling by noting that a ‘mere desire of an employer to pursue neutrality’ would be insufficient. An employer must, the Court held, demonstrate a ‘genuine need’ for such a policy, ‘taking into consideration, inter alia, the legitimate wishes off those customers or users and the adverse consequences that the employer would suffer in the absence of that policy.’ In MJ it further clarified that ‘the prevention of social conflicts’ in addition to customer preferences may also form the basis of such a demonstrated need.


Interestingly in relation to question (d), in MJ, the Court came to a slightly different conclusion in relation to the prohibition on conspicuous, large-sized signs. This rule is, the Court noted ‘liable to have a greater effect on people with religious, philosophical or non-denominational beliefs which require the wearing of a large-sized sign such as a head covering.’ Noting that where a rule is based on a criterion that is ‘inextricably linked to a protected ground’ it must be regarded as being directly discriminatory the Court then states that ‘where the criterion of wearing conspicuous, large-sized signs of political, philosophical or religious belief is inextricably linked to one or more specific religions or beliefs, the prohibition will mean that some workers will be treated less favourably than others on grounds of their religion or belief, and that direct discrimination, within the meaning  of [the Directive] may therefore be established’.


This seems rather confusing. The Court had already noted in its conclusion that the rule in IX was indirectly discriminatory that statistically, the ban applied almost exclusively to Muslim women. Yet in MJ it appears to say that because a ban on large sized signs might have a greater effect on those whose beliefs require the wearing of a head covering it may be ‘inextricably linked to a protected ground’ and therefore may be direct discrimination.


Perhaps what the Court is saying is that a ban on conspicuous, large signs amounts to a hidden targeting of the signs of a particular faith and therefore amounts to direct discrimination. This would be consistent with its previous rulings in G4S and Micropole where an instruction that focused on the symbols of one faith (‘no headscarf next time’) was found to render it more likely that a restriction would be found to be directly discriminatory. Unfortunately, the tortured way it expresses this point is liable to cause confusion in the future.


In relation to the question posed by both referring courts as to whether national provisions more favourable to equal treatment on grounds of religion or belief or freedom of religion and belief are permissible (question (c)), the ruling was clear. The Court stated that the Framework Directive ‘did not itself effect the necessary reconciliation between freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the legitimate aims that may be invoked to justify unequal treatment (…) but left it to the Member States and their courts to achieve that reconciliation’. The Directive has left a ‘margin of discretion to Member States taking into account the place accorded to religion and belief within their respective systems’. While this margin goes ‘hand in hand with supervision by the EU judicature’ the Court noted the lack of consensus on these issues amongst the Member States. Accordingly, ‘national provisions protecting freedom of thought, belief and religion , as a value to which modern democratic societies have attached great importance for many years, may be taken into account as provisions more favourable to the protection of the principle of equal treatment within the meaning of Article 8(1) of the Directive.


 This ruling largely reaffirms the rulings in G4S and Micropole. Despite some confusion, it appears that neutrality requirements, if genuinely and systematically applied to all forms of religion and belief, are in general to be regarded as indirectly, not directly discriminatory. Customer preferences and the need to avoid social conflict may provide the justifications for any indirect discrimination that such neutrality policies involve.


It is disappointing that the Court chose not to address the issue of sex/gender discrimination on the narrow and technical grounds that that referring court had only mentioned Directive 2000/78 which does not cover this issue. With the national court having raised the issue of sex/gender discrimination, the CJEU could have given guidance as to how the relevant legislation in this area should be interpreted.


The Court does seem to have sought to address some of the critics of its previous rulings. This ruling has greater emphasis on the need for employers to demonstrate the necessity of a neutrality policy and the, admittedly confusingly phrased, conclusion that bans that selectively target large symbols are potentially directly discriminatory would seem to be a step towards stricter control of bans that amount to hidden targeting of one faith.


The Court has also addressed the concern that its invocation of Article 16 as a justification for neutrality policies precluded Member States from taking more protective measures.


Indeed, this underlines how the Court has maintained its cautious approach in its area. This seems justifiable. Amending the Framework Directive would need the unanimous consent of all Member States. If the Court were to get its interpretation wrong the chances of remedying this politically are very low.


As I have written before, Europe is in the midst of unprecedented religious change. After centuries of dominance in most Member States, Christianity is in rapid decline. Non-belief is in rapid growth, as is the Muslim population of Europe. Any one of these changes alone would produce endless unanticipated consequences. We do not have a store of precedents that tell us how coexistence is best achieved in this context. There are deep divisions between Member States on these matters.


Religion is hard for the law to regulate as it is both a usually immutable identity and a series of often controversial, chosen beliefs. The treatment that is appropriate for an immutable identity is often inappropriate for a set of beliefs and vice versa. A religious symbol can be worn to express a belief or to reflect one’s identity or simply as a matter of habit yet it is hard to design a law that can distinguish between these different situations. Objection to a religious symbol at work may often be the result of pure bigotry, but it may sometimes be a legitimate reaction to a controversial belief.


The management of religious diversity is equally tricky. For some states, coexistence is best achieved by requiring everyone to hold back on expressing their religious identity in shared contexts and by seeking to stress a shared a-religious citizenship. Other states have felt it best to protect religious expression and identity in a wide range of contexts. Each approach has its fans and its critics and the data as to which approach is better at producing inter-religious friendships, mutual respect and widespread adherence to liberal values is very mixed. In these circumstances it would be immodest in the extreme for the Court of Justice to decide it knew the best approach and to impose it on all 27 states.


That said, values are important and total deference on the part of the Court would be equally inappropriate. Opportunistic embrace of secularist principles by those with exclusionary agendas is a recurrent problem. A duty of neutrality must not be used as a disguised means of excluding minorities such as European Muslims. Both its previous rulings and IX and MJ see the Court taking incremental but significant steps that seek to prevent this by ensuring that any neutrality policy imposed by employers is applied consistently to all forms of religion and belief rather than targeting one faith. In Micropole, open targeting of the symbols of one faith was constrained, in MJ, the Court appears to move towards restricting hidden targeting to a greater degree (though it ought to have expressed itself more clearly on this point).


This will not bring an end to exclusionary practices in the workplace and falls short of the desires of some commentators but in the changing and unpredictable situation that Europe finds itself in, this is probably as big a step as it is wise for a multi-national court to take.


Barnard and Peers: chapter 9, chapter 20

Photo credit:





  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.