Achbita and Bougnaoui: raising more questions than answers

Case Comment: Case C157/15 Samira Achbita and Centrum voor gelijkheid van kansen en voor racismebestrijding v G4S Secure Solutions NV and C-188/15 Asma Bougnaoui Association de défense des droits de l’homme (ADDH) v Micropole SA

Samira Achbita and Asma Bougnaoui were both fired for wearing an Islamic headscarf in the workplace. In its Grand Chamber ruling of March 14th the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that internal company rules banning the wearing of visible religious, political or philosophical symbols do not constitute direct discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. It also developed some criteria according to which indirect discrimination can be legitimate and objective.

The case Achbita has already attracted critical attention (see HERE, HERE and HERE). Indeed, it is of great significance. Advocate General Kokott sets out the core question in her Opinion:

“Is a private employer permitted to prohibit a female employee of Muslim faith from wearing a headscarf in the workplace? And is that employer permitted to dismiss her if she refuses to remove the headscarf at work? These are, in essence, the questions which the Court must answer, for the first time in the present case, from the point of view of EU law, and, more specifically, in the light of the prohibition on discrimination based on religion or belief.”(para 1)

Developments with regard to the wearing of religious symbols and clothing are being closely watched across Europe and remain subject to ongoing discussions and political debate. The key question is whether and how this ruling of the CJEU provides a judicial space for employers to ban the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace.

The cases concerned Belgian and French women employees who were fired for wearing an Islamic headscarf. In the case of Achbita the preliminary question referred asked how Article 2(2)(a) 1 and 2 of Employment Framework Directive 2000/78 on equal treatment in employment and occupation must be interpreted. The core question was whether the prohibition on wearing an Islamic headscarf, set out in the general internal rules of a private company, is direct discrimination.

In its assessment, the CJEU found that the internal rules at issue banned all visible religious, political or philosophical symbols and that they applied in the same way to all employers so as to secure a neutral company image. The internal rules were applied without distinction, explicitly prohibiting the wearing of any visible sign of political or philosophical beliefs not just visible signs of religious beliefs. Therefore, the court concluded that the ban at issue could not be regarded as direct discrimination in the sense of Directive 2000/78.

The CJEU however recognised the possibility that such an internal rule could lead to indirect discrimination. This would be the case if the rules were capable of putting individuals of certain religions or beliefs at a particular disadvantage in comparison with other employees. Nonetheless, it held an indirect difference of treatment may be objectively justified by a legitimate aim, provided that the measure at issue is appropriate and necessary for achieving that aim.

In its ruling the CJEU thus concludes that the aim of an employer to present a neutral image towards its clients is legitimate, as long as these rules refer only to employees in direct contact with clients. The CJEU concludes that the national court is to determine if and to what extent the company rules comply with these requirements in practice.

Comment

This ruling is interesting from many points of view.

First of all, the considerable weight given to a company’s desire to promote a neutral appearance seems somewhat curious. It appears to contradict the ECtHR judgment in the case of Eweida and Others v. the United Kingdom where the Strasbourg Court ruled that there had been a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief when Ms Eweida was not permitted to wear a crucifix at work. The ECtHR in Eweida considered that on one side was Ms Eweida’s desire to manifest her religious belief and on the other was the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image, and that a fair balance had not been struck. Although the human rights court recognized that the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image could be regarded as a legitimate aim, it found that the national court accorded it too much weight.

It could be argued that in contrast to Eweida, the ruling of CJEU provides more space for employers to ban the wearing of religious symbols in the workspace without violating the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. The ruling could be understood as confirming that the mere wish of a company to present itself in a neutral way is an objective justification for a different treatment of employees .

Second, it is remarkable that the CJEU extensively studies whether the objective is legitimate and the requirement is proportionate but at the same time fails to examine the proper balance between the desire of the employee to manifest her religious belief and the employer’s wish of a neutral workplace environment. On this issue Advocate General Kokott delivered the following opinion in para 127

it is for the referring court to strike a fair balance between the conflicting interests, taking into account all the relevant circumstances of the case, in particular the size and conspicuousness of the religious symbol, the nature of the employee’s activity and the context in which she must perform her activity, as well as the national identity of Belgium“.

The question is whether the omission of the CJEU to examine the said fair balance provides enough guidance to enable national judges to determine whether a company ban on wearing visible religious, political or philosophical symbols, can be regarded as indirect discrimination. Or does it simply push this hot potato onto the plate of the national judges?

Third, it seems curious that in its assessment on whether or not the company’s internal rules can be considered a legitimate aim, the court primarily (maybe even solely?) focuses on the fundamental right of freedom to conduct a business (Article 16 CFR). Why, for example, idoes it not mention the right to work in Article 31(1): Every worker has the right to working conditions which respect his or her … dignity?. It seems that the reasoning of the Grand Chamber, and the way in which it weighs the various relevant elements, remains implicit at best – but perhaps is simply incomplete. This is problematic in such an important case.

In Bougnaoui, the core of the preliminary question was whether Article 4 (2) of Directive 2000/78 must be interpreted as meaning that the preference of a customer to receive services from a company employee who does not wear an Islamic headscarf can be considered a genuine and determining occupational requirement.

The ruling of the CJEU on this question is clear. It concluded that in the absence of any company rule, the mere desire of an employer to take into account the wishes of a customer to ban religious symbols is direct discrimination. Such a ban cannot be regarded as a genuine and determining occupational requirement within the meaning of the Framework Directive.

Various NGO’s have already claimed that the ruling of the CJEU legitimizes discrimination, in particular towards Muslim women. As for now it will depend on the national courts and law-makers to set out the conditions under which an internal company rule can ban religious clothing from the workplace.

Monique Steijns

Monique works within the Dutch Ministry of the Interior as an adviser on constitutional law and human rights. Monique studied law at the University of Amsterdam. She is part of the Netherlands Committee of Jurists for Human Rights and chairperson of the working group Constitutional and Administrative law.

Monique contributes in a personal capacity; the opinions expressed cannot in any way be attributed to the Dutch government.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s