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A judgement by the Court of Justice in Europe caused widespread confusion yesterday, amid claims that it was issuing or permitting ‘a Muslim headscarf ban’.

Image of woman in headscarf

Eid celebrations at London’s Trafalgar Square / (Source)

Yesterday (14 March 2017) the European Court of Justice issued a judgement which found that general rules prohibiting employees from ‘the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign[s]’, including headscarves, on the basis of neutrality, need not constitute direct discrimination under European employment law. It may constitute indirect discrimination, if it puts ‘persons adhering to a particular religion or belief being put at a particular disadvantage’ and that disadvantage could have been avoided, for example by moving the employee away from a customer-facing role, but no conclusion on that was reached as the issue was passed back to lower courts to determine.

This was interpreted by many media outlets as a judgement that a ban on headscarves, or political, philosophical or religious signs generally, were found to be lawful. Richy Thompson, Director of Public Affairs and Policy at the British Humanist Association, challenged the reporting of this judgement in a blog titled ‘No, the European Court of Justice has not banned headscarves in the workplace‘.

Whilst the European Court of Justice’s judgement did not find a case of direct discrimination, it left open the possibility that lower courts might find a case of indirect discrimination. For a fuller analysis, see Richy’s blog post.

IHEU President Andrew Copson

IHEU President Andrew Copson commented:

“The question courts must ask themselves in cases such as this one is whether the manifestation of one person’s religious identity will interfere with the rights of others. If the answer is no then the court should allow the manifestation. If the answer is yes, then there may be a case for limiting it.

“As we work out solutions to the new tensions of living in an increasingly diverse society, we need to take an approach that balances everyone’s rights fairly and we are pleased that the European Court of Justice has today appeared to reinforce that principle.”

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